The History of the Cur Breeds
The History of the Cur Breeds.
Introduction to the Curs
The Cur was originally a working dog verses a luxury (sporting or pet) dog. Cur has been spelled several different ways: Cu, Kurre, and Curre, and they’ve been called different names: farmer’s dog, Sheepherd’s Hounde, cow dog, "Herdsman’s Dog, etc. but however it’s spelled, a cur is an all purpose dog able to do several different jobs, herding, guarding and hunting, in addition to being a contributing member of the family.
The Cur was the rootstock of most of the herding dogs in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. Some curs will gather livestock by barking and circling, using the animal’s instinct to bunch for protection against predators. Other curs would harass a militant animal into chasing it all the way back to its owner and then search out another. There are several styles of herding a Cur would employ to control the herd. And some curs would chose a different style based on the type and aggressiveness of the desired animal to control.
The sheep or cattle the Original Curs controlled were not the meek and mild animals seen on modern farms and ranches, but were the ancestral stock that found their own food and fought for survival from the predators that existed in Europe and Asia three thousand years ago. When animals left the flock or herd, the Cur would independently seek them out and force them to rejoin the original gathering. If an animal was in a situation where the dog could not force the animal to move back to the herd, the dog’s constant barking would bring help. This barking at a cornered animal is called a bay up.
Why isn’t there a single description of the Cur? Partly due to the fact that the "Cur" is a type and not a specific breed. The Cur has evolved into several breeds to meet the needs of different climates and functions. Here are a few examples to illustrate this distinction. Originally there was a group of dogs used to hunt raccoons in the southern part of the United States and were logically called "Coonhounds." In the beginning, there were Walkers, Blueticks, and/or Black and Tans born from the same parents in the same litter. The latter distinction was based on their color. Later, when people bred for a specific color pattern, the mixture of different colors in a litter occurred less and less often. After generations of breeding for one trait, in this example color, not only were the dogs consistently producing the specific color, but because the breeders were limited to only propagating dogs from within their elite group, there also developed a genetic drift in their abilities. The Walkers run the fastest track, the Blueticks are known for their grit, and the Black and Tans are known for their ability to work a cold trail. Therefore, no longer are they just the same type (Coonhound) but have also become distinct separate breeds based on a specific trait.
But color itself does not make a breed. Dogs that have the Merle coloration, like a Great Dane, a Dachshund, or a Collie, all have the same coat color pattern but behave and appear differently. A breed of dog is usually determined by a standard that a special cadre of people have decided how they want their dogs to look or act and then limiting the breeding pairs to that exclusive group of dogs. Before the nineteenth century, dogs were lumped together in types with family or lines denoting special characteristics.
Type is based more on the function than color or appearance. As an old breeder observed, "Form follows function." If you looked at dogs that were all performing the same function, you would observe that they had several structural and behavioral patterns in common, for example, the Azawakh, the Afghan, the Pharaoh Hound, the Scottish Deerhound, the Whippet, and the crème of sight hounds, the Greyhound. There are many other breeds in the coursing type but this list will do. The dogs mentioned all posses light bones, a lithesome gait, and are visually excited. They appear to walk on springs because of the structure of their elongated feet. These dogs are called "Long dogs" and when bred within the coursing type produce offspring that are consistent in their structure and abilities even though size and hair type may vary. You could easily see the resulting progeny was a coursing type, not just within the first generation but in their descendants also.
Over a long period of time, breeding for type maintains the most consistent appearance and shape than selection by a breed standard that may be interpreted differently by individuals. For example, the Greyhound has had several breeds of dogs, like the Bulldog (George Walpole, Lord Orford), blended into their genetics, but because the breeding pairs were ultimately selected by performance, the form of the Greyhound has remained virtually unchanged for several centuries until the sport of dog racing shifted their emphasis from coursing to short distance sprinting. While the English Bulldog, which originally looked very similar to the American Staffordshire Terrier, has changed dramatically. Their breed standard called for a wide chest. This was interpreted to mean the wider the chest, the better the dog. But no one knew when to stop and now the English Bulldog, which originally was a very athletic animal, is now so structurally unsound they have difficulty whelping or keeping up when their owners are jogging at a fast pace. Some people have "recreated" the original English Bulldog and these "new" breeds are known by various names like the "Old Bull Doggie".
The Celtic Influence
The Celts contributed the most in the development and spread of the Curs. The Celts were instrumental in developing several breeds of cattle, horses and other livestock. The process they used was in practice for thousands of years, "Breed the Best to the Best to get the Best." In fact, some people today still adhere very tightly to that proven formula for success.
The Celts needed a breed of dog, strong enough and aggressive enough to control and dominate their semi-feral cattle, hunt wild boar (a favorite pastime of theirs), and still be biddable to their masters and gentle enough to trust among the children in the village. The Celts found the raw material to start molding their ideal dog within their own dogs that were used to perform these three tasks, and by mixing in dogs with superior abilities that they came across in their travels, they were able to consistently improve their dogs’ working ability.
The earliest literate culture in Europe that the Celts met was the Greeks who also had a herding dog belonging to the Molossi barbarians. These dogs are described as premier herding dogs, guardians of cattle and sheep, outstanding hunting dogs, and extremely aggressive guard dogs of house and family. In 347 BC, Aristophanes’ described the dogs," Of the Molossian breed of dogs, such as are employed in the chase are pretty much the same as elsewhere, but the herding dogs of this breed are superior to the others in size, and in the courage with which they face the attacks of wild animals" (Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes, 1994). As you can see there are three main purposes of this type of dog; hunter, protector, and herding dog. Roman poets, Horace’s Sixth Epode (lines 5-10) and Vigil (Georgics III, 404-413), both describe the Molossus and the Laconian dogs as being great herding dogs and as relentless hunters.
Celtic warriors were recruited to fight by Bythinia, Carthage, Egypt, Macedonia, Sparta, Syracuse, Syria, and even Rome. In 334 BC, the Celts made a Treaty of Friendship with Alexander the Great. The Treaty was never broken and Alexander the Great was able to leave his northern frontiers undefended while he took his famous army east to carve his empire and history.
In 278 BC, when the Celts settled in Anatolia (Turkey) they lived in the surrounding countryside in their farming communities and hill forts leaving the native people in the city alone except for trade.
It is possible that the Celts could have selected dogs from the regions they served as mercenaries or they could have had access by trading for dogs from other countries further east in the countries Alexander the Great conquered. The Pariah dogs of India are certainly comparable to some Curs in shape and color.
The dog structure for herding that appears to have worked best was "a fast, agile, thin dog with long legs." (Poet M. Aurelius Olympius Nemesianus 284). Other traits that Curs have are a bobtail and dewclaws (sometimes-double dewclaws) on their rear feet. The size of the dog depended on several factors, the job ("function determines form"); predators - a big dog strong and aggressive enough to defend the flock, no predators - smaller dog; nutrition (not much food - smaller dog has an advantage, lots of food – bigger dog); terrain (rough, rocky land or swampy, hilly, lots of underbrush – small dog, large open spaces, firm ground – large dog); etc. The fur types; rough smooth, long coated depended on temperature and weather for the whole year (cold/hot, wet/dry, etc…). In addition to the preceding, the owner’s preferences always took priority. An extremely brave or superior tracking dog was normally given better care than his better adapted but not as gifted brethren were.
About 1000 to 600 BC, the Celts had literally hundreds of different lines (breeds) of curs dispersed across Europe as far in the east as the Black Sea or Asia Minor to as far west as the British Isles, and from Spain to Germany. The Celts were farming, hunting, and trading people that lived in thousands of small communities widely separated from each other. Each village or family might have a line of dogs based on a combination of herding, hunting and local climate. A breed is developed because someone had an outstanding dog and linebred his offspring in the hopes of replicating the original dog. Sometimes this is done intentionally but in the dim past and with the limited knowledge of genetics at that time it was primarily accomplished by the sheer isolation of villages being so far apart. The best working dogs were given better care and the pups resembling the best dogs were prized, incidentally giving the village dogs a uniform look. After a few generations this breeding to the "main dog" of a community produces an established line of Curs that is predictable in its ability to perform certain tasks.
When other villages saw how well the other villager’s dogs hunted or herded they traded for the improved dogs. And if they couldn’t trade for the dogs, sometimes they stole them during raids. When this new line of herding and hunting dog was crossed with the other village dogs, that may or may not have been a line of herding and hunting dogs, sometimes you had an improvement (hybrid vigor) and then their dogs became objects of desire. This cross-fertilization of dogs went on continuously back and forth, developing new breeds that would last a few decades until another new breed, based an older one, succeeded it. The lineage of the working breeds is not a tree with branches but a net woven by man and his needs. This occurred about the third century BC in Galatia (means land of the Gauls which then was Anatolia and is now called Turkey) and moved west finally to the British Isles. When the Celtic people were overcome in mainland Europe, the Curs and the Celtic people continued to survive in Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
The Destiny of the European Curs
Many of the territories held by the Celts such as France, the Rhineland, Hispania (Spain and Portugal) were conquered by the Roman Empire and became quite prosperous under Rome’s yoke. Unfortunately, their Celtic culture did not survive the assimilation. Even their language became Romanized. All these lands came to speak Latin dialects; French, Spanish, and Portuguese, Catalan, etc. And with the invasion of the German tribes north of the Rhine and Danube rivers, the Celtic influence on Continental Europe was devastated
The Curs remaining in Europe continued to evolve into the herding and hunting dogs of the present day. The natural bobtail of the cur dog continued to show up in litters in most herding dogs until the turn of the twentieth century.
With the coming of the industrial age most of the world changed. Peasants were no longer as tied to the land and left for the metropolitan cities to earn their fortune. Farming is hard work with long hours and little or no pay. Working in factories was actually easier when jobs were available. During the last part of the nineteenth century, peasants developed into land owning farmers. They had strong feeling of national patriotism and some noticed that the old working type dogs were becoming scarce. In 1891, a number of wealthy, influential men, having seen the success of the dog show in England at Newcastle (1859) and Crufts (1886), met to "research the best methods for making the brilliant physical and moral qualities of the native shepherd dog known and appreciated." Until then the Belgium herding dogs used by the shepherds and farmers commonly had natural bobtails among their number.
One hundred and seventeen dogs were gathered together from the Brussels urban and Brabant province at the veterinary college in Cureghem November 15, 1891. Mr. L. Vander Snickt wrote the following about the gathering, "Often these dogs have only a stump of a tail. "
Professor Adolphe Reul was the chief director of the Club du Chien de Berger Belge who blueprinted what the Belgium standard should be. The three types of coats were still long haired, rough haired and short haired. The bobtail type survived for another five years until 1897 when it was decided that a long tail protected the genital and anus and was more decorative. It may also have been because the poor people, like shepherds and farmers, had mostly bobtails and the rich people wanted a dog that did not look like a poor man’s dog. The result was that within one generation the bobtail trait, which is genetically dominant and had survived for thousands of years, was wiped out in the Belgium show dogs. And since the lower class tend to follow the rich people's lead within a few generations of dogs, bobtailed herding dogs in Belgium were almost impossible to be found.
Curs in Great Britain
Humans have lived in Britain for several millenniums, mostly as hunter-gatherers. About 3000 BC, people from the continent brought cattle, sheep, and pigs, as well as domesticated cereals, such as wheat and barley. Cattle and pigs became the more important livestock in the southern, midland, and western Britain, probably due to less cleared countryside for grazing. Cattle and pigs can forage in the woods but sheep need open grassland and low brush to graze.
Besides wheat and barley, early Britons still gathered such foods as blackberries, crab apples, haws, hazelnuts, sloes, and other fruits and nuts that were available. They also continued to hunt auroch, badger, beaver, brown bear, hare, horse, red deer, wild boar, wild cat, wolf, and other small animals not only for food but also for furs and to protect the flocks from predation. Their dogs helped in the hunting and guarding aspect of their existence.
The Celts settled in Britain about 1200 BC bringing their cattle, pigs, sheep, and dogs with them. The Celts by nature were a proud bunch, quick to anger and terrible at cooperating. This was a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Everyone wanted to be the one in charge. Therefore they separated into hundreds of small communities. This isolation into small groups caused stable local conditions, which with specific roles and the their rich genetic diversity, the curs and other dogs the Celts brought to the British Isles started to branch out again into distinct varieties. After a while, the areas with constant drizzle and rain commonly had the rough, wiry coats, the warmer southern areas commonly had the smooth coats, and the areas with a chilly climate commonly had the long coats. The areas that had large game developed very large dogs from the already big dogs used for guarding the flock, herds, and home. Lean, swift dogs were bred together and the fastest pups were selected to continue their development in the coursing of hares. The large, suspicious dogs became ban dogs, tied during the day and let loose at night. The specialized types that branched off developed their own new classifications. The general all-purpose Cur dog continued to be used by the poor people who could only afford to feed one dog to do the chores of the whole farm provided the dog didn’t mind sharing his food (hares and other small game) with his people.
At the time Caesar decided to invade Britain, the Celts had a flourishing civilization being very advanced in agriculture, art, jewelry, metal work, pottery, and producing linen and wool goods of superlative quality. The sagi made in Britain placed its owner at the height of Roman fashion. Britain traded bronze, iron, copper, tin even gold with traders from all around the Mediterranean area. Europe’s main source of tin was from Britain, so an established trade existed for some time. Getting a well-bred dog from Britain was considered quite a status symbol. Kings and noblemen would give a British dog when currying favor or sealing a friendship or a pact.
Grattius wrote a 540 line poem about dogs around 8 AD The Loeb Classical Library translation says," What if you visit the straits of Morini, tide swept by the wayward sea, and choose to penetrate even among the Britins? Oh how great your reward, how great your gain beyond any outlays! If you are not bent on looks or deceptive graces, at any rate, when serious work has come, when bravery must be shown and the impetuous War-god calls in the utmost hazard, then you could not admire the renowned Molossians so much." I take this to mean that the dogs of Britain are not necessarily good looking but really brave working dogs.
When the Romans conquered England, the peasants supplied cattle, sheep and grain to the soldiers. They moved the stock with the aid of their dogs. The colors of the bobtailed Cur at that time were fawn, red, black, merle, and black and tan.
When the Roman Empire began to fall apart in the fifth century AD, The "barbarians" of Caledonia moved in to fill this power vacuum. The English sent a delegation to Rome requesting Roman aid but Rome was having her own problems. So three Germanic tribes; the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes, were contacted. They were offered, and agreed to protect England in exchange for being allowed to settle on agreed upon areas. The Anglo-Saxons proved to be worse then the Caledonians of Northern Scotland for, after repulsing the Caledonians, they took over all of England and pushed the native British (who they called "Welsh" or foreigners) west into present day Cornwall and Wales.
In Scotland the Cur dogs became mixed with the Spitz type of dog, creating a longer coated dog that was not as aggressive as the pure Cur and better suited to handling cold with their long coats and sheep as they have a characteristic silent creep and manner called "eye". This cross, called a Shepherd’s Cur, was probably the ancestor to the Collies.
By 800 AD, there were several dog breeds in Ireland. The best-known type was the guard dogs. This type was known as the Archu, a large, fierce dog used to guard the family and property. The most valuable Archu was called cu chethardoruis or the "dog of four doors." The four doors referred to the master’s house, the sheepfold, the calf byres, and the cattle pens. If anyone killed such a dog, he would have to pay ten cows and replace the dog with another of the same breed.
The most famous Archu was described in Tain Bo Cuailnge. Through a series of misunderstandings and absentmindedness, young Setantae had to kill the guard dog which could only be controlled "with three chains held by three men each" to save his own life. Since this left the household and livestock without protection, young Setantae volunteered to take the dog’s place, and thus earned the name Cu Chulain or "Dog of Culann".
Another famous Archu was Ailbe, owned by the king of Leinster. He guarded all of Leinster. The farmers’ Cur used to protect the farm was often referred to as aithechmatad or peasant cur.
The hunting dogs were used to catch deer, boar, and hare. The large swift hunting dog was called milchu, which translates as "animal dog". The milchu (milgi in Welsh) were bred for quickness and the ability to find game by sight unlike the Archu, which were bred for their large size and aggression. The value of a milchu was one cow. There was also a smaller hunting dog called the gadar (bytheiad in Welsh) used to track the game and then the milchu would be unleashed to run it down.
There were three distinct herding dog types; conbuachaill morchethrae, herding dogs for large animals like cattle; conbuachaill laeg, herding dog for calves; and conbuachaill caerach, herding dog for sheep. The value of the dog would vary depending on several factors but Irish canon law states that the value of a dog guarding the flock is five cows and a dog must be provided of the same breed. In addition, payment must be made for any loss of livestock occurring before the end of the year by wild animals.
The last type of Irish dog is the "pet dog". Ordinarily, the poor people used them around the farm as ratters to control small vermin. But these small dogs were often taught tricks and provided one of the three entertainments at gatherings. Small dogs were especially associated with women. During childbirth, the small fice would protect her and the baby from fairies. If her dog were killed, the offender must pay a priest to read scripture over her day and night during delivery.
In 920 AD, Hywel Dda wrote a book of law in which there are descriptions of the three varieties of cur dogs in addition to other dog types available in Wales. The three varieties, based on their job not ancestry, were the herding cur, the hunting cur, and the guarding or house cur. The Welsh word for dog is cu pronounced "key".
The value of the herding cur was "worth the most important beast of the stock he guards." This sounds more reasonable than the Irish until you understand that most Welsh villages shared a "main stud animal" for the whole farming community and that would push the cost up considerably if the dog injured was responsible for the village’s main bull or ram. A Cur could be classified as a herding Cur upon the testimony of two witnesses.
In Welsh law, the value of the dog changed according to who owned it and the conditions in how it was killed. For example a guarding Cur killed more than nine steps from its owner’s door was not paid for. But if the guarding Cur was less than nine steps from its owner’s door, its value was twenty-four pence.
"No one except a lord is entitled to enclose more than two plots of grass for himself, namely a paddock and a meadow; and if he wants to enclose other grass let him take a cross from the Lord, and that will keep it" (The Law of Hywel Dda).
The Welsh farmers grazed open range until about 1875. This was similar to the open range policy that the United States had until 1950. If someone’s cattle or sheep was on your property, you could chase them off or sic your dog on them. As with any big, strong dog, you might have 99.9% control of your dog but you never have total control all the time. A big dog can cause damage especially if they bit in the ham or meaty section of the leg. Cattle at this time were being raised primarily for hides not meat and you didn’t want to cause damage there. A small short-legged dog normally doesn’t jump up high enough to bite anywhere but the heel section of the leg avoiding damage to the hide.
"If it happens that a person chases livestock from his corn and in the chase they break their necks or are hurt, he is not bound to pay for them if he chased them legally. This is how he is entitled to chase them: while they are on his land and his corn. If he has dogs with him and the dogs kill the stock, it is right for him to pay for the act of his animal…and if he chases them beyond his own boundary, let him pay a camlwrw, and the livestock to the owner" (The Law of Hywel Dda).
Cattle dogs are a special breed. They have to be able to dominate a larger animal and yet still be obedient to man or they would be of no use. There are two basic types, a Header and a Heeler. The Header works the head and clumps livestock together to move the herd or flock as a group under the direction of the shepherd. During the time when there was open range the majority of Curs handling cattle were headers. The Heeler is used to drive livestock out of the grain fields or for control of animals in stockyards. Alone and without fencing, heelers scatter the herd. It is thought that the Heeler acquired their name by nipping at the heels of cattle and being small enough to avoid being kicked or rammed by the angry animal.
In Wales a short-legged, dwarf variety of herding Cur became popular due to the possibility of litigation of a large, herding Cur damaging stock when chasing it off property. The Corgi, like his Cur ancestors, would also perform several tasks around the farm, gathering chickens and other fowl into their coop at night to protect them from foxes, warning away any trespassers, and would take action in exceptional circumstances if the owner was not present. It was as a market dog that the Corgi proved to be extremely helpful. The cattle at this time had formable horns and when angered by being struck or poked would assert their ability to resist further aggravation from the humans. A Corgi could dash under the bottom rail in a stockyard, bite the enraged animal and quickly reestablish control.
This is one of those specialized dogs that developed from the cur. The term Corgi is composed of two Welsh words Cor meaning dwarf and gi is a form of the Welsh word cu meaning dog. Thus you have dwarf dog. And if you look at dwarf animals, the legs and arms (if applicable) are shortened while the torso is normal sized. In 1304, Edward II, at that time Prince of Wales offered to send "some of our bowlegged harehounds, which can well discover an hare if they find it sleeping, and some of our running dogs which can swiftly chase it". Overall the Corgi is a healthy, exuberant, big dog in a short package.
The Norman Influence
On September 25, 1066, William the Conqueror invaded the British Isles. In six years, the whole of England was conquered and united. The Normans brought their hounds (a corruption of the word hund) which they used in their mounted hunts. The hound’s excited baying telegraphed to the deer, fox, or other game animal that they were being hunted by the hounds causing the selected game to run for extended distances and added an element of audible excitement to the chase for the humans who were following the hounds by horseback.
The Curs were silent on trail to quickly bring the game to bay for efficient dispatch and were ill suited to scaring the game animals to run for their life in extended chases. There was less "sport" to be had hunting with a Cur dog.
The Normans systematically killed off everyone that opposed their right to rule. And since conquerors always have to despise the vanquished to justify stealing land or goods from them, they derided anything British. The Cur dogs that protected their owners were killed and those Curs that barked but refused to attack were mocked. The Normans started to call anything of mixed breeding a cur. That is how the meaning of the word Cur altered to mean a mongrel.
The Cur belonged to the working people, shepherds and farmers, who did not have any money. At one time, dogs and other animals were taxed, but the Curs were exempted from taxes due to their working status because even the Normans acknowledged the Cur was needed by the shepherds and farmers for their work to be done efficiently.
The distinguishing characteristic that allowed the poor to not pay taxes was the Cur’s bobtail. Rich people noticing that a dog had no difficulty getting around with an abbreviated tail nor did it affect the dog’s ability to work and not wishing to continue paying unwelcome taxes, cut their dog’s tail and claimed their dog was also a Cur. They shortened their dog tails surgically with either a knife or by employing the town’s "Nipper." A nipper is an individual in a village who would bite the pup’s tail off for a fee. There used to be a myth that biting a pup’s tail off instead of cutting it with a knife made the pup grow up to be more aggressive. The process of cutting something short is called "curtailing" and this tradition continues today in the pointing and guarding breeds.
Poacher’s who wished to obtain game illegally but didn’t want to attract the notice of the warden with their cur barking at cornered game, bred a collie and a long dog (Greyhound, Deerhound, etc) together because since neither parent barked, the lurcher offspring wouldn’t either. To pass the lurcher off as a Cur, they also cut the tail short.
The Irish government woke up after a few centuries to the fact that not all the dogs with bobtails were Curs and passed a law in Dublin making it mandatory that a "Cur" wear a piece of wood (a clog) attached to their collar. If a Cur was caught without his clog, the owner, if identified, had to pay 10s or spend fourteen days in jail. Otherwise the dog was killed.
Cutting a dog’s tail was not the only mutilation dogs had to endure. Because the Cur was rough on sheep, their eyeteeth were filed or knocked out to prevent damage to the valuable sheep.
William I loved to hunt deer on horseback and reserved this sport for himself. The "king’s deer were sacred, if a peasant or nobleman was caught killing a deer, the penalty was the same as if he killed a man. Of course, the penalties the rich paid were different than the poor man. Until the late twelfth century, the penalty for poaching by a peasant was castration, blinding, and cutting off both hands and feet.
It was also illegal to damage or reduce the deer’s feeding area (the vet) in any way, such as allowing livestock to graze on it or ploughing the ground. And it was required that fences be maintained so that the deer could not leave the area of their protection. This is a big change from the old Celt rule which said, "If a wayfarer sees a beast in a king’s forest from the road, let him aim a blow at it if he likes; and if he hits it, let him pursue it while he sees it, but from when it goes out of his sight let him leave it alone." (The Law of Hywel Dda)
William I expanded the "Royal Forest" started in 1016 by Canute, the Viking conqueror of England, by ordering that certain areas in England be protected by stringent forest laws enforced by the king’s appointed officers; foresters, verderers, and wardens. Some of the laws stated that all dogs unable to pass through a stirrup had to be "lawed" by having their middle two toes on their front feet removed to prevent them from running down the king’s deer. Later, as an alternative, the knee tendons were cut (hamstringing), the ham muscles were cut (hamling), or the ball of the foot was cut deeply instead in a crisscross pattern. Later, the stirrup was replaced by a metal ring seven inches in diameter and it was given the name "dog gage".
The penalty for not following the Forest laws under William I was death, but in 1351 under the Black Prince, the son of Edward III, in a writ to William Stanley, chief forester of Wirral, there were about sixty offenders who had not "lawed" their dogs and they were fined an ox or 5s, 4d for every dog the warden found "unlawed". A hefty fine but it was better than death.
The Royal Forests were not restricted to established woodlands or marginal land like moors. In fact, scores of well established villages with their fields and meadows could wake up to find that overnight they were "within the metes and bounds of the kings forest" and were now subject to the forest laws and the entire village was required to relocate.
Kings following after William created more forests so that by the end of the twelfth century, fully one third of England was forested.
The lord of the manor, while not allowed to hunt deer, reserved the right to fish trap and other game. This made life hard on the peasants and their dogs as the source of meat was no longer available for peasant or dog. The indiscriminate manner of the king in establishing forests that decreased the barons’ income and other abuses they endured eventually caused a revolution and the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta that included three clauses easing the burden of the Forest Laws in 1215.
In 1577 AD, William Harrison wrote his "Description of Britain and England." It was the most vivid and complete picture of English life at that time. In Chapter XV of that book, Harrison talks about both the purebred Cur and the mongrel cur, both terms used by the general public but with different meanings. "Dogs of the homely kind are either shepherd's Curs or mastiffs. The first are so common that it needeth me not to speak of them. Their use also is so well known in keeping the herd together (either when they grass or go before the shepherd) that it should be but in vain to spend any time about them." Since their job was to keep the herd together it’s obvious that at that time Curs were a heading type dog. Both Harrison (1577 AD) and Grattius (8 AD) seem to feel that the Curs were good workers if unhandsome so their appearance didn’t change too much over the centuries. Unfortunately we don’t know absolutely what the Curs looked like but since rich people were able to dock the tails of their pointers and claim exemption from the dog tax and also poachers were able to curtail a lurcher and not be required to pay taxes, this gives a very close description.
A lurcher is a cross of a Colley (collie) and a long dog (Greyhound or related type). Why didn’t poachers train a cur to hunt illegally? A Cur while hunting is silent but as soon as the game is brought to bay, will start barking at it. The Greyhound, the Collie and their offspring the Lurcher are silent workers. We are left with the logical deduction that the Cur of that time was a short coated dog with drop ears, and had a tail approximately two to five inches long. The pure collie wasn’t aggressive enough to kill and the greyhound was illegal since 1016 for anyone below a "freeman" to own.
"Besides these also we have sholts or curs daily brought out of Ireland, and made much of among us, because of their sauciness and quarrelling. Moreover they bite very sore, and love candles exceedingly, as do the men and women of their country; but I may say no more of them, because they are not bred with us." Harrison is very lightly discussing the Irish Curs at this point because the description of Scotland and Ireland was to be covered by someone else and he didn’t wish to steal their thunder. The Irish Cur apparently had a more "saucy" or aggressive attitude than their English cousins.
"The last sort of dogs consisteth of the currish kind meet for many toys, of which the whippet or prick-eared cur is one. Some men call them warners, because they are good for nothing else but to bark and give warning when anybody doth stir or lie in wait about the house in the night season. Certes it is impossible to describe these curs in any order, because they have no one kind proper unto themselves, but are a confused company mixed of all the rest"
"The last kind of toyish curs are named dancers, and those being of a mongrel sort also, are taught and exercised to dance in measure at the musical sound of an instrument, as at the just stroke of a drum, sweet accent of the citharne, and pleasant harmony of the harp, shewing many tricks by the gesture of their bodies: as to stand bolt upright, to lie flat on the ground, to turn round as a ring holding their tails in their teeth, to saw and beg for meat, to take a man's cap from his head, and sundry such properties, which they learn of their idle roguish masters, whose instruments they are to gather gain, as old apes clothed in motley and coloured short-waisted jackets are for the like vagabonds, who seek no better living than that which they may get by fond pastime and idleness."
These are the small, nondescript, trained dogs that were used by individuals to solicit money by their amusing tricks.
The Decline of the British Curs
The Curs in Britain declined and disappeared for several reasons. Because the major predators had been killed off, there was no real need for a large, powerful dog to protect livestock. Large-scale livestock operations switched from cattle to sheep. The people still raising cattle changed to larger, amiable stock that were transported to market by railroad and did not need the cur to drive the cattle to market. Stockmen no longer needed as aggressive a cattle dog as the Cur. Disease killed a lot of cattle in the late 1800s and ruined the cattle market. And last, but definitely not least, the Scotch Colley (Border Collie) came into fashion and owners of curs started breeding their dogs to the Collies, thus breeding the Curs out of existence in the British Isles.
In 959 AD, King Edgar of England imposed a tribute of 300 wolf skins on King Lundwall of Wales, allowed men to pay taxes in wolf heads, and granted amnesty to criminals in exchange for 100 wolf tongues. Within four years time, King Lundwall reported to King Edgar that wolves were extinct within the Welsh borders.
In the mid fifteen hundreds, wolves were still perceived as a threat to livestock in Scotland and laws were passed requiring Scottish men to participate in wolf hunting three times a year. As wolf hunting was considered an exhilarating adventure, most of the young noble men and women did not find this a chore. But even with these extreme measures, what finally killed the wolf in Britain was not the sword (actually arrows or spears) but the plowshares. Loss of their habitat, not hunting, caused the wolf to become extinct. With the phasing out of the Royal Forests, the wolf had fewer places to live. By 1490, the last wolf outside of Scotland was killed. In the thinly populated Scottish Highlands, wolves were able to hold on for a little longer but with the reduction of the Caledonian Pine Forest to one ninth of its size by the seventh century, the last remaining wolf in the British Isles died in 1691. With the disappearance of the wolf, sheep and cattle could graze in peace since the only other large predator, the Brown Bear, had been extinct since 900 AD. As it’s said in Early Irish farming, "Nidlig buachail beithir, which seems to mean ‘a herdsman does nor require a monster".
During the "Enclosure Acts," thousands of poor people and their Curs were forced to leave their farms and herds. With wool bringing premium prices, the rich people wanted to maximize profits from the land and they planted hedges around the fields and planted grass to grow for sheep to eat in pastures. The area that had supported several families for millenniums now only had jobs for one or two shepherds and their dogs. Sheep in continental Europe tended to clump together but the sheep being raised in the British Isles spread out over the whole field making the most efficient use of their grazing and production of wool. Curs are more combative in their manner of herding than shepherds or collies being better suited to handling the fiercely independent and aggressive cattle used for draft work and leather at that time. Even the Scotch Colley (Border Collie) had their eyeteeth filed or knocked out so the valuable sheep would not be damaged.
When the Turnpike Act was passed in 1663, the ancient roadways that cattle had trod for centuries were no longer free to use. In order to use the roads to transport livestock you now had to pay for each animal. At five pence per small animal or a third of a d per cow or calf this mounted up when you are moving thousands. Drovers usually had to plan their trip months in advance. The long distance and thousands of animals involved was almost as complicated as a military campaign. Usually this was not too difficult for droving was a trade handed down from one generation to the next and most of the difficulties had been already worked out. If the road was too expensive to use, you took off across the countryside not yet "enclosed." But in every group there are those elements that are no better than they have to be. These individuals bestowed upon the rest of the legitimate drovers a bad reputation by stealing, poaching, or damaging property. Farmers would react by fencing their property and blocking access to the old trails, sheep walks, or cattle paths.
Prior to the 1700s, the British tenants found small cattle, noted for being good foragers on marginal food, like the Longhorn, to be the most economical. Large cattle lack the dexterity to properly plow small fields and when they pulled the plow, they would compress the soil, their great weight making bricks in the moist field. Larger cattle also required stronger fences and stressed the grazing more than smaller cattle. The small cattle breeds of the British Isles were also able to subsist of marginal food like the Piney Woods cattle of Florida, which could survive by eating pine bark. Smaller cattle also allowed the tenants to keep more cattle on the same amount of feed giving their animals the ability to maintain their genetic diversity, giving greater versatility of use since not all the cows would be dry at the same time, and the cattle were more content since they are a herd animal. Horses are more agile than cattle but the tenants felt more comfortable with their traditional oxen team and there was the added benefit that when an ox was too old to work, it could be fattened and either butchered or sold. Besides, horses required expensive grain and feed when working that a farmer could put to better use such as feeding his undernourished family.
The upper class in the eighteenth century, concerned with profit, not plowing the fields, wanted substantial beef cattle, to feed the growing hunger of the industrial revolution and started cross breeding or replacing the smaller "nondescript", lean cattle with larger, more desirable breeds like the Hereford, the Shorthorns or the Alderney (Jersey). Many Herefords of that time weighed three thousand pounds or more and were even bigger than our present day Herefords. There existed at that time a "bigger is better" mentality. In 1839, a prize winning show bull and well known herd sire, Cotmore, weighed thirty-nine hundred pounds. By the nineteenth century the improved modern cattle had replaced the nonlucrative cattle breeds. Since the larger cattle breeds were milder mannered they didn’t require the same dog power as the earlier cattle.
Four hundred cases of dogs having rabies caused widespread panic. In 1835, Hanover Street in St. George’s parish was cleared of dogs most of which were probably not strays but pets let out to relieve themselves. Vigilante actions against dogs thinned out the dog population and eventually removed rabies from Britain completely.
In 1865, "Cattle Plague" or rinderpest created heavy cattle losses throughout England for two years after killing 400,000 cattle. Then Foot and Mouth disease also broke out and raged until brought under temporary control in 1878 but the disease broke out again in two years. With prices of hides and meat soaring due to the shortage of cattle, traders and jobbers went to Ireland to purchase cattle. Even with the cost of shipping and railway costs was added in, imported cattle were still cheaper than the big meat markets of Manchester and the industrial areas of England. The Corgi showed their worth moving Irish cattle at the docks of Wales from the ships to the railroad cars.
When a working breed outlives their original function, they can either take on another purpose like the German Shepherd Dog and the Rottweiler becoming a guard dog after originally being a herding dog or the breed dies out. People only preserve what they value and when the Cur was no longer economically practical they became extinct in Britain but continued to perpetuate themselves in America where they had immigrated earlier with the massive migration of farmers, shepherds and yeomen.
The Law of Hywel Dda
Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly
The Domesday Book
Life in Medieval England by J.J. Bagley
Life in Tudor England by Penry Williams
The Molossus Myth and other Mastiff Malarkey by Jan Libourel
Prehistoric Europe by Timothy Champion