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The Sportsman's Cabinet 1833 - Irish Wolfdog


The IRISH WOLF-DOG.

To the Editor of the Cabinet.

A friend of mine, who feels much interested in subjects of natural history, and who has lately bid farewell to the Emerald Isle, on account of the agitated state of that distracted portion of the British dominions, put into my bands, a few days ago, a skull of the celebrated Irish greyhound or wolf dog, an animal, which, in days of yore, was so highly esteemed, and which might be said to be peculiar to the Sister kingdom. Now, although there was nothing remarkably interesting in the contemtemplation of the skull in question, yet a train of ideas naturally enough led me to a retrospection of that period when the Irish greyhound appeared indispensable as well to the chase, as to the care of the flock, and even to human protection; and I could not help regretting the extinction of the noblest species of the dog tribe, though the service of this animal is no longer an object of consideration. The same friend who presented the skull to me, remarked that two of these dogs only were at present to be found in Ireland, one of which was in the possession of the celebrated Hamilton Rowan, who very obstinately refused all applications for the purpose of continuing the breed.

A writer on this subject observes, the great Irish wolf dog, which may be considered as the first of the canine species is very rare, even in the only country in the world where it is to be found, and is kept rather for shew than use, there being neither wolves nor any other formidable beast of prey in Ireland that seem to require so powerful an antagonist. The wolf dog is therefore bred np in the houses of the great, or such gentlemen as choose to keep him as a curiosity, being neither good for pursuing the hare, the fox, or the stag, and equally unserviceable as a house-dog. Nevertheless, he is extremely beautiful and majestic in appearance, being the largest of the dog kind to be seen in the world. The largest of those I have seen, observes the writer (and I have seen above a dozen,) was about four feet high, or as tall as a calf of a year old. He was made extremely like a greyhound, but more robust, and inclining to the figure of the French matin or the great Dane. His eye was mild, his colour white, and his nature heavy and phlegmatic. This was perhaps owing to his having been bred up to a size beyond his nature; for we see in man and all other animals, that such as are overgrown are neither so vigorous nor alert as those of a more moderate stature. Goldsmith, the writer here alluded to, was most likely mistaken in regard to the height of the Irish greyhound, as it by no means agrees with other accounts, which state the height of this animal to be scarcely three feet, and even this is enormous.

However, be the height what it may, all accounts agree, in placing them at the head of the dog tribe; and that they were both fierce and powerful are evident from the nature of their employment, which was to clear the country of wolves; but these being destroyed, the dogs also are wearing away, as if nature intended to blot out the species when they had no longer any services to perform. In this manner several kinds of animals fade from the face of nature, that were once well known, but are now no longer seen. The enormous elk of the same kingdom (Ireland) that by its horns could not have been less than eleven feet high, the wolf, and even the wolf dog are extinct, or only continued in such a manner as to prove their former plenty and existence. Hence it is probable that many of the nobler kinds of dogs, of which the ancients have given us such beautiful descriptions, are now utterly unknown, since, amongst the whole breed, we have not one that will venture to engage the lion or the tiger in single combat The English bull dog is the most courageous of the kind, but his exploits, owing to his comparatively diminutive form, are nothing compared to those of the Epirotic dogs mentioned by Pliny, or the Indian dogs of which an account is given by Elian.

It is affirmed by respectable authorities, that the large Danish dog, the Irish greyhound, and the common greyhound of this country, though they appear so different, are but one and the same race of dog. The Danish dog is said by Buffon to be but a more corpulent Irish greyhound ; and that the common greyhound is the Irish greyhound rendered thinner and more fleet by, experimental crosses, and more delicate by speculative culture; for these three different kinds of dogs, though perfectly distinguishable at first sight, differ no more comparatively from each other than three human natives of Holland, Italy, and France; and, by the same mode of argument, he justifies the supposition, that, had the Irish greyhound been a native of France, he would hare produced the Danish dog in a colder climate, and the common greyhound in a warmer one; and this conjecture, he observes, is absolutely verified by experience, as the Danish dogs are brought to us from the north, and the greyhounds from the Levant. At all events, in whatever state of ambiguity, the origin of the Irish wolf dog may remain certain it is, that the similitude between the dog of this description and the Danish dog is so exceedingly correct, that little doubt can be entertained of their being of the same race with such trifling variation as may have been occasioned only by the difference of climates in which they have been produced. However, after all the speculative theories, I am inclined to think thai the Irish greyhound or wolf dog was originally produced by crossing the rough or wire-haired greyhound and the mastiff, being merely two removes, in this way, from the latter:—it appears in fact to be the strength and courage of the mastiff united to the speed of the greyhound; and if we consider the nature of the employment for which they were originally intended, nothing could be better calculated for the purpose. Some years ago, a mastiff bitch belonging to a friend had a litter of whelps, and though no particular dog had been put to her, it was nevertheless determined to rear one of the puppies. The whelp for the purpose of rearing was elected with indifference; but as it grew, it became evident that the sire of the animal was a neighbouring greyhound. It attained an enormous size, (in fact, it was the largest dog I ever saw) retaining perhaps more of the mastiff than the greyhound in its disposition. It was amazingly strong, though of a peaceable temper, and its courage was equal to its force. This animal would attack either bull or bear with all the bravery of a well-bred bull dog, when encouraged by its master; and what is singular, it had a remarkable antipathy to an ass, which it would uniformly seize 'whenever one of these creatures happened to come in its way. I once saw it attack a strong male ass, and the latter making a desperate defence, a very furious battle was the consequence: the ass was not able to use its hind feet effectively owing to the manner in which the dog had attacked it; but it struck with its fore feet, and bit most vehemently; and yet the combat was of short duration, as in a few seconds the ass was laid prostrate, and would have been quickly killed had not the dog been taken away. The dog in question was not quarrelsome, nor was he ever known to resent the insults of the smaller animals of the tribe; he was heavier than the Irish greyhound (weighing 140 pounds) but from his character and appearance altogether, I have little doubt, had he been crossed with the greyhound, that the Irish greyhound or wolf dog would have been the result.

What is by some called the Harlequin Dane varies in a small degree from the race of which I have just been speaking, and that more in colour perhaps than any other respect: these have a fine marble coat, beautifully variegated with large and small spots of black, grey, liver colour, or sandy red upon a white ground. The majestic and commanding aspect, bold muscular action, and elegant carriage of this dog would recommend him to notice had he no other useful properties or points of attraction. He is sometimes, though but rarely seen trotting before the splendid retinue of the wealthy, with a degree of dignity denoting the state of grandeur he ia selected to precede or support. In the execution of the trust reposed in him, he manifests neither fear nor pusillanimity, amidst various obstructions, but supports the intrepidity of his character, and the eminence of his appointment, by a firm and stately demeanour, undebased by any clamorous or barking disquietude. The Dalmatian or common coach dog is considered a much more humble and subordinate attendant upon the horse, the carriage, and the servants, than the animal above mentioned, who from a certain consciousness of his own force, seems to be both the harbinger and escort of his master, being bold and eager in his approach and ready in his defence. It does not appear by any regular transmissions upon record, that these dogs were ever appropriated to any particular department of the chase, either ancient or modern, but were most probably destined to many pursuits according to the customs and fashions of the times in which they lived. Indeed from their aggregate of distinguishing properties of strength, speed, instinctive courage, and indefatigable perseverance, there cannot be a doubt that, with the hunters of centuries past, who traversed the trackless desert in pursuit of game of every kind, as well as wild animals of the most ferocious description, these dogs must have been held in high estimation; were as fearless as those who boldly exposed their persons to the imminent dangers of the most perilous chase; as they would attack much larger, and much more fierce and powerful animals than are now to be found in this country in its present refined state of sporting and agricultural improvement.

Dogs of the above description are frequently introduced and expressively depicted in the finest productions of Rubens, Snyders, and others, as well as in the prints of Ridenger, where they are represented as fierce, swift, and powerful, rushing to the combat with the most determined and impetuous ferocity, instantly closing with the wolf or the boar, and equally undismayed at either.

Now that I am upon this subject, I cannot forbear to notice another variety of the dog tribe, which, from appearance might be regarded as the Dwarf Irish greyhound, and which, though not altogether extinct, is much less common than formerly—I allude to the lurcher. The dog passing under this denomination is supposed to have been originally produced from a cross between the shepherd's dog and the greyhound, which from breeding in and in with the latter, has so refined upon the first change, that very little of the shepherd's dog seems now to be retained in the stock, its patience, docility, and fidelity, excepted. The lurcher, if thus bred, without any farther collateral cross, is about threefourths the height and size of a greyhound, rough and wire-haired, ears nearly erect, dropping a little at the point, of great speed, courage, and sagacity. These dogs are but little calculated for the diversions of the great, but used to be great favourites with the farmers, as they are capable of running up to a rabbit or a hare not fully grown, and easily taught to carry the game in their mouth to almost any distance. The late celebrated breeder of cattle, Bakewell, of Dishley near Loughborough, Leicestershire, had a very large specimen of the lurcher, by which he was usually attended, and which possessed almost incredible sagacity. The qualification, however, for which he was most prized by his master, was the following:—Mr. Bakewell was in the habit of riding orer his grounds—in fact, being very corpulent, he walked very little, but was much on horseback, on which occasions he was uniformly attended by his favourite dog; if be happened to drop his whip or stick, the dog would immediately seize it, and with a spring place it in the hand of his master. In riding across his grounds, Mr. Bakewell some times dismounted while his horse leaped the fence, when the dog would stand ready prepared on the other side, and seizing the bridle reins, hold the horse till his master had also crossed the fence. It is not necessary to enumerate the whole of the feats which this dog would perform, but what is not very usual with dogs of this description, he would take the water, and both swim and dive as well as any water spaniel; yet his accomplishments appeared instinctively natural, rather than the effect of education. Indeed, generally speaking, the lurcher, though rough and unruly by nature, soon becomes tractable, imbibes instruction in a shorter space of time than would readily be believed, and soon conforms himself to the various motions, manners, and pursuits of the person who commands him. Possessing these qualifications, it can create no surprise that this is the very race of dogs applicable to the aggregate wants of the poacher; in fact, they are so admirably adapted to the universality of the system and the services required, that no other breed of the whole species seems so peculiarly calculated for the purpose: they equal, if not exceed, any other dog in sagacity, and are easily taught any thing that it is possible for an animal of this description to acquire by instruction. Some of the best bred lurchers are but little inferior in speed to the greyhound; rabbits they kill to a certainty if they are at any distance from home; and when a rabbit is started not far from a warren, the dog invariably runs for the burrow; and by thus getting between the rabbit and its retreat, seldom fails to secure his game. As their name implies, so they will lurk about the borders of a rabbit warren, and the moment they perceive a rabbit at any distance from the holes, they throw themselves in the intervening space, seldom without success. But the qualifications of the lurcher do not stop here. In nocturnal depredation, he very soon becomes a proficient: when nets and wires are fixed for hares, the lurcher is despatched by a single word of command, to scour the field, paddock, or plantation, which, by their running mute, is effected so silent-. that a great number of hares may be very soon caught in a plentiful country with little fear of detection.

The writer happened to be returning from a small market town in company with a farmer who kept one of these dogs which then attended him. It was about eight o'clock in the evening in the month of October; our road lay across a small rabbit warren, over which we trotted at the rate perhaps of seven miles an hour: the lurcher, however, secured three rabbits and brought them successively to her master, when rearing by the side of his horse, he took them from her mouth without alighting.

That lurchers which were once common enough, and are now very scarce, is easily to be accounted for, as a man cannot keep a dog of this description, without suspicion attaching to him as a poacher. The farmers have been compelled by their landlords to abandon animals so notoriously destructive to game, while the professed poacher, to disarm suspicion as much as possible, generally makes use of an animal for is purpose of the terrier kind intermixed with the bull dog, or a cross between the bull dog and cur, many of which will run mute, and are found to answer the purpose of driving hares as well as the lurcher.
I remain, your's, &c.
An Old Sportsman.



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