Thoughts on Our Beagles Today...What Does the Future Hold?
What does the future hold for the beagle as a breed? Should we be concerned about the gene pool we have now, and about our possibilities for the future? Will the bloodlines we are developing today be able to produce something that will satisfy the rabbit hunter in 2050 and beyond (assuming there is still hunting then), or are we gradually creating beagles bred so specifically for field trials and shows that no hunter would want them? These are the types of questions we must consider if we really want to maintain the long-term usefulness of our breed, especially for its original purpose. Too often, short-sighted thinking takes priority over what is best for the breed. Let me say up front that my thoughts are not meant to disparage field trialing, showing, judging, etc. I believe, as always, that trials and shows are wonderful events for bringing people together, and for showing individual hounds to the public, and do have some usefulness in thoughtful breeding decisions. My attempt here is only to get others to consider the overall welfare of the breed when these decisions are being made.
It seems to me we have reason to be concerned. I was able to do quite a bit of judging AKC Licensed SPO trials in my area in the 1980s and 90s. As the years went by, I started to make a point of asking my judging counterparts about their hounds, their breeding programs, etc. I became increasingly alarmed at the number of fellow judges who did not hunt, or maybe went only once or twice a season. Some of these guys had only one or two hounds, and yet they were asked to judge over and over again. I know from being a member of several clubs that finding judges is often a difficult undertaking, but would someone like this really know what it takes for a hunting hound to produce results when hunting is tough in January and February? Are we making an effort to find out enough about our judges and to get only the very best people for this all-important job?
I noticed that some of them seemed very uninterested when it came time to judge a hound on searching ability. I remember in particular one very well known judge who preferred to amble along on his horse and talk with the gallery while I watched the hounds searching. A club member or two even told me ahead of time to watch for this, and to be sure that I paid particular attention to searching ability because he probably would not. I will say, however, that he was a very sharp judge after the rabbit was up!
This is Ike Carrel's beautiful Field Champion Shady Shores Suzy from the late 1930s. They don't breed field trial hounds like her these days!
I am concerned about the increasing use of enclosures. How will we know if the hounds we are judging can be trusted around deer, fox, and other “off game”? I understand that trials on hare have gone almost exclusively to using enclosures. Does this not alarm anyone? I have heard that some really never run “on the outside” anymore, and may even keep separate hounds for that (hunting). Isn’t this something akin to the road our brace beaglers went down in the 1950s and 60s? What type of hound will we create in this way (think long-term here)? In night-hunter foxhounds, running trials in enclosures has produced a hound that is primarily “speed and drive”, and is so undependable around deer that few foxhunters dare to run them outside a fence. Through the years, if trial beaglers in my area needed a breeding outcross, they often looked to the northern hare trials or Deep South. Will we always be able to do this?
I am concerned at the quick judging decisions being made at many trials today. How do you judge 40-50 big males in one day without going over into Day 2? Are we doing justice to our breed by making decisions in 15 minutes or less, knowing that someday people will be breeding to these hounds based on their field trial records? Some trials do still let them run, but we also know many that do not. I remember having two bitches in a 7 hound winners pack that was judged on a 20 foot run just as it became too dark to see. One of the judges had to be at work the next day and could not return to judge, so they decided the placings based on what they had seen in the 20 foot run. Can YOU judge 7 hounds in 20 feet? I never ran under those judges again.
Our show people, for the most part, are totally uninterested in hunting and have created practically another breed. I hear them talk about preserving the “function of the breed”, and how the standard is designed to do that (and it is!), but after so many generations without field testing, we just don’t know what is still there. For example, I have noticed voice (or mouth) is very lacking in many of the show beagles. Generally speaking, if you listen to them, you’ll hear a raspy, weak little bark, instead of what you might expect from a hound breed. I’m convinced many of the show people would prefer no voice at all, and in fact many will tell you their hounds have been “de-barked” to keep noise down at home! In the field-show crosses we have made, voice is generally a concern.
I am disappointed with the recent bans on hunting in England, Wales and Scotland. At least Ireland is holding on over there! The late Rick Roth, President of the National Beagle Club for many years, once told me that trying to ban hunting in Ireland would be about as easy as banning hunting in West Virginia…just mentioning it might get you killed. One hundred years ago, it was common for beaglers in this country to bring hounds over from England to supplement the breeding programs going on in the States. This option, feasible or not today, could soon be lost to us forever. The English pack beagle today is a marvel of design, both physically and from a hunting standpoint. Despite what we may think of their field work on cottontail in the USA, few would dispute that careful breeding has produced a hound so excellently suited for work on the European Hare. We may never know how they could have helped us in the future. May the recent actions in England be a serious lesson to all of us who like to hunt. We must support the organizations fighting to protect our rights, and be careful not to support our enemies!
I am concerned about the beagle gene pool, which appears to be shrinking. Depending on the beagle association or federation, most hounds will have similar bloodlines based primarily around what is winning at the time. We see the same thing happening on the show side (AKC dog shows). If a popular stud or line has a genetic defect, it may be unknown or hidden from the public, and before long nearly every kennel has it. Before the days of modern ease of travel, we saw more hounds “bred for the country” in which they were located, and therefore more different individualized strains. Today, our bloodlines and beagles are becoming more and more standardized across the country, although we still have more types of field trials than ever before. Should the great influence of certain stud dogs and bloodlines be a concern? How many true STRAINS can you name off the top of your head?
Turnover among beaglers seems to be increasing. How many people do you know who have bred more than 3 generations of beagles? How many people in your club were active in 2005? It takes years to produce a breeding program that can produce sustained results, regardless of what you are breeding for, yet few will be around that long. We want everything to happen as fast as possible these days. Are there short-term beaglers making long-term decisions that will affect the breed long after they have moved on? Sure there are.
I am disappointed by the conformation I see in the average field beagle today, and generally speaking in the show beagles also, but that is another issue. Field people have so much to gain from better conformation, although most are probably unaware of just what those gains could be. If your aim is just to produce a field trial winner that might only have to run a total of one hour or less to achieve a win, then perhaps conformation is relatively unimportant to you. But to the long-term welfare of the breed, it is of vital importance. Conformation gives ease of movement which adds longevity to a working hound. It allows a hunter to get more hours from a properly conditioned hound, as well as more days in a week, and more years of service before the hound starts to break down. So, if Sally can run the fuzz off a rabbit for half a day, and wins every trial, but then is laid up for the next three days because she is build more like a dachshund, should we be breeding her?
Beaglers, for the most part, tend to get their ideas about breeding mostly from other beaglers. I would encourage everyone to broaden the scope and look around at what has been done and is being done in other dog breeds, and even livestock, poultry, pigeons, etc. There is much to be learned from the efforts of people like Ronnie Wallace and Ben Hardaway in foxhounds, or Bob Wehle in Pointers. These men have all made great contributions to us through their videos, books and articles, and we can learn a great deal from them. The Internet can help you find them.
I once heard an old foxhunter say we should enjoy life as it is today, because it will never get any better than it is right now. What does the future hold? So much of it depends on the decisions we make today, doesn’t it? The hounds we have to work with today are what they are because of decisions made by those who went before us. How can we be certain that hounds we pass on to the future will be as good or better than what we currently have? I challenge each of you reading this to put the welfare of the breed first, in every decision you make, as painful as that may seem at the time. If we do this, and think long-term, our future will be very bright despite the challenges that face us today.
- Tim Hackworth