The herding ability, bred for generations into bearded collies is in danger of dying out, as this attractive breed is turned into a fancy pet and show ring favorite. A beardie, as they are nicknamed, won at Crufts in 1989 and this has helped make the breed too popular for its original purpose, says the Working Bearded Collie Association, a body set up to save the working strain.
“The show dogs have got a horrendously long coat,” says JoAnne Woodward, an association committee member. “We want to save the working strain before it disappears. We reckon we’ve got about 15 years to do this before it goes altogether.”
Working bearded collies are smaller, tougher and less hairy than their show counterparts. Sometimes known as Highland collies, they are said to be the oldest herd dog in the British Isles, the original Celtic dog. There are probably fewer than 200 purebred ones left.
“There are long-cated collies or goat-haired sheepdogs like this all round Western Europe.” says David Hancock, author of “The Heritage of the Dog.” They seem to have been used in gorseland or dense undergrowth. They are good workers in snow. This may be because they have good noses.
“It’s tremendous news that somebody is going to save the working animal. It will do the breed enormous good. All the working breeds need to have a function. Some sheepdog breeds are past saving. The rough collie and the Shetland sheepdog have lost the ability and even the anatomy to work.”
The influence of show enthusiasts, keep to produce extreme breed features in their dogs, can ruin the performance of many working dogs. Some breeds have developed inherited eye diseases, disabling hip dysplasia, skin disorders, inordinately heavy coats or poor temperment.
Working bearded collies are remarkably healthy but their numbers are small and scattered round the country. “We want to register any working bearded collies we can find and, we hope, create a large enough gene pool to save the breed.” says JoAnne Woodward. “If a dog has working parentage, even though it doesn’t work, it would be welcome to join.”
Her own dog Sam is a typical working animal. Tough, energetic and with a far from glamorous coat, he helps Terry Woodward, head stockman at a pig farm, whenever pigs escape or need moving. He would come nowhere at a pedigree dog show, but his herdingtalent is intact.
Show bearded collies are not welcome. “In my opinion they are now two different breeds”, says David Dique, a professional dog handler, who started the new association, which so far has only twenty human members. “We don’t want to breed working beardies with pedigree dogs except as a very last resort.”
He feels that working beardies have a future other than on farms. “They could be used as drug-sniffer dogs, explosives-detection dogs, and as mountain search and rescue dogs. Nosewise, they are good trackers.” But this future depends on finding the last working bearded collies before it is too late.
c/o JoAnne Woodward
Grove Farm Cottage
Whittington Hurst, Lichfield, Staffs