An article in The Field from February 2008 (http://www.thefield.co.uk/gundogs/178912/Joining_the_flatcoat_retriever_pack.html) has reemerged on Facebook and it has prompted me to return to something that’s been interesting me recetly.
“In the Fifties the flatcoat was in real decline and by the Eighties, when I began breeding, there was only a very small pool. I started with dogs bred by Ken Butler, which were fantastic. We both sought out all the old pre-war lines – the working breeding that had disappeared during the war. These original lines were the best workers – reliable, honest, lovely dogs – but there were so few of them.” – Chris Gwilliam, quoted in the article.
It was this sentence that most interested me when I first read the article some months ago. The significance for me was not only the recourse to old working genes but to the work itself. What I mean is this: the careful selective breeding which produced these 19th century retrievers addressed a job of work that needed to be done. However, the first driven shoot (battue) seems to have been in 1863 but as reported in the article, “By 1864 records show a Mr. Hull breeding flatcoats.”
What the evidence seems to suggest is that at the emergence of modern driven shoots the popular retriever was the Flatcoat. He wasn’t bred specifically for this (No retriever was; it was new.) but he was the incumbent popular worker. In time the breed fell out of favour because, it is generally argued,”Labradors were quicker to train and more predictable in their work.” The problem of course with the explanation is that the Labrador was not new at the end of the Edwardian period. It too was established during the 19th century. In other words, Labradors had been quicker to train and more predictable for all of those decades and yet the Flatcoat was more popular.
Something had changed but it wasn’t the dogs. The quotation immediately above continues, “When shoots began to suffer the effects of two World Wars, it wasn’t surprising that keepers, guns and pickers-up all turned away from the flatcoat to the cost-effective and less time-consuming lab.” In other words, pressure on costs and time forced a switch to Labradors. Now, this suggests an earlier period when people didn’t mind spending multiples of their time in training.
A more likely explanation is that the Flatcoat was the firm favourite for the forms of hunting which preceded the Battue and that his dominance well into the 20th century was a residue of this until large numbers of people became aware that the Labrador was a better bet for the changed circumstances.
This gives rise to concern for the survival of the old genes so carefully recovered by the likes of Chris Gwilliam. There’s some more on these concerns here: https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/retriever-breeds-use-them-or-conserve-and-use-them/