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An Endangered Species?

by Lynne Sharpe
March 2011

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 necessary.”

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 all descended.

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 too heavy.

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 incorrect!)

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 populations.

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 world.

For more information about Dr. Sharpe's Beardies, feel free to visit the website address listed below. For security purposes, the address is not provided as a "live" link. You must copy the address to your browser.


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