The tale of the Sealyham terrier, a dog that was once a favourite of royalty, but is now rarer than the giant panda, has at its core a plucky hero with enough character and charm to conquer hearts wherever he went. It all began in the mid 1800s, at a Pembrokeshire estate called Sealyham.
Its owner, Capt John Tucker-Edwardes, was the epitome of the Victorian sporting gentleman, with the means to devote a lifetime to his sporting interests. He set about breeding a terrier to fulfil his passion for badger-digging and otter-hunting. Although he kept no records, it’s thought that he used a mixture of Dandie Dinmont, the nowextinct English white terrier, the fox terrier, the West Highland terrier and the corgi, drawing on the most sporting examples of each to produce a dog that stood no higher than 12in at the shoulder, with a strong jaw, a white, wiry coat and some markings to the face and ears. He prized the colour white because it ensured his dogs weren’t mistaken for the quarry. After his death, other terrier enthusiasts took up the baton, and tinkered with the breeding of the Sealyham. Some 60 years elapsed before the breed obtained official recognition-it was registered with the Kennel Club (KC) in 1910. The official breed standard describes them as having ‘great substance in small compass’, being ‘sturdy, game and workmanlike’, and ‘alert and fearless but of friendly disposition’ with a ‘brisk and vigorous’ gait-but the shenanigans that followed would have made the captain turn in his grave.
On the one hand were men like Sir Jocelyn Lucas, who hunted a pack of Sealyhams from his famous Ilmer Kennel in the 1920s and 1930s, using them to flush pheasants and rabbits to waiting guns. Sir Jocelyn grew disillusioned with the Sealyhams that were bred to show, which, to the sporting man’s eye, were growing too heavy and cumbersome, and began to experiment by out-crossing with the Norfolk terrier. This resulted in the Lucas terrier, which he described as ‘death to rats and rabbits’. But it was the winning ways of the Sealyham, rather than its varminty ones, that took them even further from their sporting roots. People soon discovered that, although the Sealyham might have the courage to hold a badger at bay, he was also a very charming fellow to have at dinner.
Between the World Wars, Sealyhams saw such a surge in popularity that they were whisked away from the badger earths of Wales and into the fragrant arms of the Hollywood elite. Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant all owned Sealyhams, and Alfred Hitchcock had two, called Geoffrey and Stanley, who can be seen coming out of a pet shop with their owner in the opening scenes of The Birds. Even royalty was charmed. The Queen Mother liked them, and Princess Margaret had two, named Johnnie and Pippin. In 1959, the Sunday Express reported: ‘A notice has been posted in Clarence House and Windsor Castle giving explicit instructions that when Princess Margaret has breakfast in bed, her two Sealyhams must be brought to the room along with her breakfast tray.’
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At the peak of their popularity, in the 1920s, the KC regularly registered more than 2,000 Sealyham puppies each year, but this did nothing for the integrity of the breed. After the rise came the fall, and now numbers have dwindled to such a degree that, in 2008, they reached their lowest ebb-only 43 puppies were registered. This dismal figure made the Sealyham one of the three most endangered breeds on the KC’s Vulnerable Native Breeds list, and a best in show title for a Sealyham called Charmin at Crufts in 2009 did little to redress the balance. The competition wasn’t televised that year, due to the BBC withdrawing support after exposing cruelty in the pedigree-dog world, so an opportunity for vital publicity was lost. In 2010, only 49 puppies were registered; 25 puppies were registered in the first six months of this year.
Fortunately, what Sealyham owners lack in numbers, they make up for in passion. It’s fair to say that Harry Parsons, founder of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club, has devoted his life to the breed. He has 13 in total, which he hunts as a pack, and each summer, he and his wife, Gail, tour Britain’s country fairs to give the dogs the exposure they so desperately need. He would happily enthuse about them all day. ‘I’ve known Sealyhams all my life. They make great companions, and the way they bond with their owners is almost magical. I keep six indoors, and if someone rings about an infestation and asks us to go ratting, they will know and are out of the door in a millisecond. If you train them, they’ll retrieve. They’ll do anything to please you. You have to own one to see it and believe it.’ Mr Parsons meets plenty of other people who share his zeal. ‘I was at a show and two elderly ladies aged 87 and 90 came up. One told me: “I had a Sealyham and after he died, I never kept another dog.” I can understand that-you can’t take the loss of them.’
An owner from Jersey, who bought one of Mr Parsons’ Sealyhams, wanted to keep it with his three other dogs, a rottweiller, a Rhodesian ridgeback and an alsatian. ‘I told him not to worry, as the Sealyham would rule the roost. Sure enough, he did. They’re cleverer than most dogs.’ Although Mr Parsons and his Sealyhams regularly enjoy rabbiting and ratting, he knows that they make excellent family dogs, and has a photograph of a baby sitting blissfully with one of his Sealyhams pups. ‘The thing about the Sealyham is that he’s the gent of the working-terrier world. He has an “I’ll stand back while you get on with it, old chap” attitude, which translates well into home life.’
Julie Moyes has been breeding and showing Sealyhams for 13 years. Although the working-dog and showing-dog worlds have never been entirely easy bedfellows, Miss Moyes believes that they should unite for the good of the breed. ‘By taking his Sealyhams to game fairs, Mr Parsons is making sure that they go to the right sort of homes,’ she says. Miss Moyes has even taken her champion Sealyham Pearl (stud-book name Champion Plumhollow Duty Bound) out with Mr Parsons’s pack. ‘It’s quite a sight to see a pack of white, writhing bodies all running along the river bank, and Harry with half a dozen or more, all listening to his every word. My girl slotted in as if she’d done it all her life.’
Finny Muers-Raby is another Sealyham obsessive. Visitors to her house,
Cothelstone Manor in Somerset, will be left in no doubt about where her interests lie: her Sealyham, Molesworth, is invariably at her heels, she has a collection of Sealyham prints by Cecil Aldin (another keen owner) and drives a convertible Nissan Figaro with a Sealyham mascot on the bonnet. ‘Everyone flies the flag for tigers and bears, but these poor dogs are being ignored,’ she points out. ‘People need to know that they’re fun but gutsy, with very gentle, sweet natures.’ So let’s spread the word, and save this dashing little dog before it’s too late.
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Photographs by Charles Sainsbury-Plaice
Sealyham selling points
* They’re champion mousers and can earn their keep on a farm
* They make adorable, loyal family dogs, which are eager to please and trainable
* They have a big heart, a great sense of humour and aren’t neurotic
* They have a non-shedding coat (but do need regular grooming and trimming) and can adapt to urban life
The Working Sealyham Terrier Club (www.mysealyhams.com) is sponsored by Eukanuba (www.eukanuba.com)