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An Endangered Species?
by Lynne Sharpe
Working sheepdogs of the type known variously as Beardies, Hairy
Mouthed Collies, Dorset Shags, Smithfields, Old Welsh Greys—and a host
of other regional names—have existed for hundreds of years with very
little change. But the breed known today to show goers and pet owners
around the world as 'the Bearded Collie' bears so little resemblance to
any of its working ancestors that it might be considered as a separate
breed. This new Bearded Collie is the result of a rapid and dramatic
change that came about when a small number of dogs of the old working
type were registered with the British Kennel Club in the middle of the
twentieth century and then isolated from the working population by the
KC's closure of the Breed Register. This closed-register system demands that, in order to register the progeny of their dogs, breeders must restrict their choice of breeding stock to those already on the register. This principle might be less obviously absurd if these registered dogs had been carefully screened and assessed before acceptance—but
in fact the only requirement was that they be recognised as Bearded
Collies by a KC show judge.
The story of how Mrs. Willison became involved in
Beardies is well known. In 1944 she ordered a Sheltie from a
dealer in Scotland, but when the puppy arrived she thought it was
some kind of cross-bred sheepdog and only later learned that it
was a Beardie. In the meantime Mrs. Willison and her family had
been completely captivated by the character of the dog, who was
later to be registered as “Jeannie of Bothkennar.” As Mrs.
Willison wrote, “Jeannie was not only more lovable than any dog
I had ever known, but she had an uncanny intelligence….” It was
this intelligence, character and power of understanding that
made Mrs. Willison feel that she could not bear to be without
such a dog in the future and which set her on her quest to find
a mate for Jeannie in the hope of producing a worthy successor
to help fill the huge gap that would be left when she died.
Jeannie of Bothkennar.
From the Collection of Krämer
Mrs. Willison certainly succeeded in her
aim of reproducing Jeannie’s remarkable character in her
progeny. When, as a child growing up just a few miles from her
home, I met some of the early Bothkennar Beardies, it was this
same character and almost uncanny understanding that captivated
me and started a love affair which has already lasted for fifty years.
Ch. Beauty Queen of Bothkennar born June 10, 1956
In 1964, when Mrs. Willison disbanded her
kennel, Biscuit of Bothkennar was expecting a litter by Mrs.
Willison’s favourite stud dog and companion, Britt of Bothkennar,
bred from working parents on a farm in Scotland.
Britt of Bothkennar 1960. Born August 10, 1955.
From the Collection of Krämer
Feeling unable to cope with the whelping and puppy-rearing herself,
Mrs. Willison asked me to take Biscuit into my home to whelp and rear her
litter, which, of course, I did. This was the last Bothkennar litter, and I was delighted to be able to keep for
myself a bitch puppy, Brambledale Briquette of Bothkennar, as a
future wife for my first Beardie, Heathermead Handsome, (a son of Ch. Benjie of
Bothkennar), who was already making a name for himself both as an
obedience competition winner and in the show ring. All of my
present-day Brambledales are descended from this pair and my aim
has always been to preserve the remarkable character that—for
me, as for Mrs. Willison,—made the Beardie so very special.
Ch. Benjie of Bothkennar 1964 born June 5, 1958
Photo: Sally Anne Thompson
From the Collection of Krämer
As it turned out, of course, Mrs.
Willison’s involvement with Beardies did very much more than
just provide her with future companions. By showing and
publicizing her dogs she had focused a spotlight on a breed that
might otherwise have remained outside the world of dog shows and
kennel clubs, known only to those shepherds and farmers who
treasured it as a worker. But even in the 1960s Mrs. Willison
recognized that the breed’s growing popularity was attracting a
new kind of enthusiast more interested in the glamour of the
show ring than in the unique character of the Working Beardie.
In 1968 she wrote in the “Bearded News”:
“But in spite of their success in the show ring, let no one
forget that the Beardie is a WORKING breed and as such,
temperament and intelligence are of utmost importance. It would
be a great mistake to try to 'improve' the breed by aiming to
breed bigger dogs with heavier coats. Let us keep the Bearded
Collie as it is—an intelligent, lovable companion, capable, if
required, of working sheep and cattle."
Sadly, Mrs. Willison’s warning went unheeded and perhaps it is just as well that she did not live to see the results of
more than forty years of further ‘improvement’ that have produced
the show Beardie of today.
One of her contemporaries, however, much
involved in the “revival” of the Beardie in the 1950s, did live
to see the twenty-first-century show version of the breed he
loved. This was Clifford Owen, who owned such important
foundation sires as Newtown Blackie and Workway Drover, and who
died in 2005. This is what he wrote in the early 1990s:
“…there are, as in so many breeds, two
different beardies, one for show and one for work. The working
characteristics will remain in the show stock for many
generations and could be bred for, but the coat length is now so
exaggerated that it would be difficult to persuade a shepherd to
accept one as a gift. It would be easier to take, as I did, from
the specimens still working and start again, crossing with the
show strain and selecting for sensible coat if that was
And Mr. Owen continued:
“The best illustration of a beardie that
I know is the frontispiece in Owd Bob, by Alfred Ollivant.”
Mr. Owen knew Katherine Barker, whose
“Owd Bob” drawings so beautifully capture the character of the
working Beardie. As a sheepdog trainer herself, she took a
great interest in the breed. Miss Barker’s drawings were made
in the 1930s but working Beardies of the same type can still be
found on upland farms today. Having always been bred for work,
the type has remained largely unchanged, whereas today’s show
Beardies bear little resemblance to Jeannie from whom they are
Left: Frontispiece from 1937 edition of "Owd Bob"
drawn by Kay Barker. Right: Elan Jim 2005.
When the Bearded Collie Club was formed
in 1955, Mrs. Willison and Mr. Owen were the key figures
involved, being the only two breeders registering puppies with
the Kennel Club at that time. It is ironic that in 2005, while
celebrating the club’s 50th anniversary, its current
committee should have launched a fierce attack on the Working
Beardie—the very dog which the club’s founders had wanted to
preserve. According to the BCC committee, however, the
Working Beardie is inferior in almost every way to his show-ring
cousin, being of poor type, poor health and poor temperament!
Particularly interesting, given Owen and Willison’s grave
concern about show coats, is the committee’s claim that Working
Beardies have “incorrect coats.” Since I assume that “incorrect”
means “not conforming to the K.C. Standard,” let’s look at what
the Standard says.
The first point to note is that the
emphasis throughout the Standard is on the importance of not
having too much coat. Nowhere does it ask for a long coat
and much of the description of the character and appearance of
the dog makes plain that it depends upon the coat not being
For example, the Beardie “should show
plenty of daylight under the body and should not look too
heavy.” A “bright enquiring expression is a distinctive feature”
which—as Mrs. Willison noted in her book on the breed—“…is
impossible if the face is hidden in a mass of long hair like an
Old English Sheepdog.”
The section on the coat itself requires:
“Length and density of hair sufficient to provide a protective
coat and to enhance shape of dog, but not enough to obscure
natural lines of body.”
And on the head:
“Bridge of nose sparsely covered with
hair, slightly longer on side just to cover the lips.
From cheeks, lower lips and under chin, coat increases in length
towards chest, forming typical beard.”
And that all-important expression, of
course, depends upon the “eyebrows arched up and forward but not
so long as to obscure the eyes.”
(This is beautifully illustrated by the head
study of Jeannie of Bothkennar--and makes clear that any Beardie
with head hair long enough to be tied up in a top-knot is
It is important to note that the Standard
places at least as much importance on the Beardie’s character as
on his looks. It describes a dog whose character is to be seen
in his face and in his whole demeanour. He is “alert, lively,
self-confident and active.” And his temperament is that of a
“steady, intelligent working dog, with no signs of
nervousness or aggression.”
How extraordinary that the BCC
committee should insist that the temperament of a Working
Beardie is an “undesirable trait”!
The illustrations that I have chosen all
show Beardies of the type required by the Standard. Look into
their faces and you will also see the wise, intelligent, steady,
self-confident gaze of the true Beardie character—as described
in the Standard.
Left: Portrait drawn by Kay Barker appearing in the the 1937 and 1947
editions of "Owd Bob." Right: Brambledale Bright Blue born
May 30, 2005.
Brambledale Blodyn, born January 2008
Briery Glen of Brambledale, born November 2008
Brambledale Brab, born April 2010; pictured at eight weeks.
Is it not remarkable, then, that with the exception of the early
Bothkennar Beardies, not one of the dogs that I have chosen to
illustrate the UK Kennel Club Breed Standard is registered on the KC
Breed Register? All of them are bred from working dogs—as were those
early Bothkennars, of course. And the Breed Standard itself—although
revised and amended over the years—is still based on the
descriptions of the Working Beardies of more than a hundred years
ago......the Working Beardies whose working descendants are now
barred from the KC Breed Register!
Ben, a Bearded Collie owned by Lord Arthur Cecil (1851-1912).
This image has been produced on postcards. From the Collection Krämer.
Mrs. Willison's aim was to preserve the Working Beardie,
not to 'improve' it. Indeed, I quoted earlier from her warning that
"it would be a great mistake to try to 'improve' the breed..." The
website of the UK Kennel Club, however, opens with the following
statement: "The aim of the Kennel Club is to promote in every way
the general improvement of dogs."
It is hardly surprising then, that the very possibility that
Mrs. Willison warned against, has come to pass and that the Kennel
Club registered Beardie of today is not only almost unrecognizable
as the heir of his working ancestors but also fails to meet the
requirements of the KC's own Breed Standard.
This article marks the end of the history section on this
website. It does not, I hope, mark the end of the story of the Bearded
Collie. But the future of the breed is far from certain and those who
want to see it prosper need to be aware of the problems it faces.
The KC-registered show-type Beardie greatly outnumbers the
traditional Working Beardie but numbers alone are not evidence of a
healthy population, especially when every single member of that
population is descended from the same tiny nucleus of breeding stock and
the introduction of new genes is banned.
Conservationists are increasingly aware that loss of genetic
diversity is a major threat to their efforts to save endangered wild
species. The idea that a species—such as the Siberian tiger—could be
brought back from the brink of extinction simply by providing a
protected environment for the remaining individuals, failed to recognize
that a viable population cannot be maintained without the regular
introduction of unrelated individuals to replenish the gene pool.
Isolated populations of wild species in many parts of the world are now
suffering genetic problems such as skeletal abnormalities, decreased
fertility and compromised immune systems.
Twenty-first century conservationists do all they can to tackle
these problems by increasing the genetic diversity of the group. In the
wild this can sometimes be done by providing a 'corridor' to link two or
more isolated groups. Captive populations benefit from the co-operation
of zoos around the world to exchange breeding animals from different
But while conservationists and zoos work internationally to increase
the genetic diversity of the remaining populations of wild species,
Kennel Clubs and Breed Clubs conspire to prevent pedigree dog
breeds benefitting from any new blood. Each breed is a closed
population, bred from a small group of 'founding fathers', although—as a
result of breeding for the showring—few breeds today bear much
resemblance to these ancestors.
Being outside the Kennel Club system, the Working Beardie population
has escaped the arbitrary dictates that are causing such damage to its
registered cousins. But the Working Beardie faces an uncertain future
for a quite different reason. For centuries an indispensable member of
the agricultural workforce, the Beardie—like his human work-partner—is
at the mercy of a fast-changing world. Even as I write, here in rural
West Wales, I look up from my desk to see the farmer on the opposite
side of the valley, gathering his sheep by racing round them on the Quad
Bike which replaced his sheepdog some years ago. His neighbour uses the
same method to move his dairy cows.....and the story is repeated on many
other farms. When I moved to this area in the 1970s, every farm had dogs
to work sheep and cattle (Beardies were good with both) and some hill
shepherds rode a pony with the dogs running alongside—and sometimes
riding home on the front of the saddle after a long day. There are fewer
full-time shepherds now and in the last ten years, I have known
three—all of whom used Beardies to manage their flocks—who have lost
their jobs and consequently their homes and their Beardies.
But the Working Beardie is a versatile dog, whose intelligence,
enthusiasm and desire to please can be utilised in many different ways.
Many live happily as family companions, joining in whatever is going on;
others compete in agility, obedience, flyball and HTM events. Hobby
herding is becoming ever more popular around the world and even
city-dwelling owners can join training courses to learn the basic
principles of shepherding with their Beardies.
So even though his traditional role may be under threat, there
is plenty of work for the Working Beardie to do and his
intelligence, wisdom, adaptability and extraordinary sympathy with
humans make him an ideal companion to keep us sane in the modern
For more information about Dr. Sharpe's Beardies, feel free to visit the website address listed below. For security purposes, the
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