roman-lurcher-coursing

The Lurcher

The  Lurcher is a Sighthound crossbreed that has been around for a long time. The best evidence we have is that the wolf became “mans best friend” about 30,000 years ago and since that time, by selective breeding, we have produced the hundreds of different dog breeds we have today. It seems obvious that very early on, man started selective breeding for two very different types of dog: The big ferocious Mastiff type dog for guard duty and protection and the super fast, Sighthound for hunting prey for the table.

There is a lot of evidence to show that this basic Sighthound or Gazehound dog type appeared quite quickly and any Lurcher lover will recognize the dogs on these 8000 year old rock paintings from Tassili N’Ajjer in northern Algeria. So while we have no physical or skeletal remains of these different  hunting dogs, from ancient artwork we can see that they all follow the same stereotype with the long pointed muzzle, a deep chest and narrow waist with powerful haunches and the curled tail for balance. These characteristic traits were not chosen for any aesthetic reason: It’s simply what nature gives you  if you breed for a fast hunting dog.

Throughout early history, hunters in different  areas must have developed their own version of the super fast hunting dog  that eventually became the famous English Greyhound and which is the basic genetic template for our Lurcher. Hard to imagine that lazy hound crashed out on your settee right now can trace its genetic makeup back to these fearless prehistoric hunting dogs!

Tutankhamun hunting dog fan

The Classical Lurcher

The Greeks had dogs central to many of their myths and the classic Sighthound appears on the famous black figure Greek pottery from 800 BC onwards. The Romans of course could never have conquered the known world without a Lurcher of some sort!

greek hunting dog

The  Lurcher and Modern Greyhound

While it’s long been assumed that the modern Greyhound could trace its roots back to the Egyptian hunting dog of the Pharaohs, recent advances in DNA research have proved conclusively that there is in fact no genetic link  between the two breeds and a more likely ancestor is the hunting dog of the Celtic iron age tribes of northern Europe. In Strabo’s  Geographica written around 5BC he gives an overview of the geography of Britain  and culture of the Celtic tribes that ruled the country prior to Roman occupation. ” Most of the island is flat and overgrown with forests, although many of its districts are hilly. It bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as also hides, and slaves, and dogs that are by nature suited to the purposes of the chase; the Celti, however, use both these and the native dogs for the purposes of war too.
In fact there is very little hard evidence to support the use of dogs in Celtic warfare and in his account of the conquest of Gaul in 50BC  Julius Caesar  gives no mention to fighting dogs. However in the far flung outposts of Celtic life in Ireland and Scotland they may have continued using fierce dogs in battle. In the great Irish hero tale Táin Bó Cuailnge  the warrior MacRoth, viewing a war muster, comments on a warrior in a chariot preceded by a brindled hunting dog. (though chances were that he brought the dog along because it would have just whined if left at home!)

Whatever the romance and mythology surrounding these dogs, the fact remains that through the Saxon and Viking period swift, large Sighthounds became the dog of choice for the ruling nobleman in Britain especially for the hunting of deer and we see for the first time the name Greyhound appear in Old English as a distinctly different dog to the Deerhound.  The origin of the name Greyhound isn’t really understood and it’s a fact that they are very seldom a grey colour. It’s generally agreed to come from the Old English grighund. “Hund” is the antecedent of the modern “hound”, but even  the meaning of “grig” is vague, other than in a general reference to dogs in Old English and Old Norse.  Good hounds were highly valued both as working animals and as companions and were often given as prestigious gifts . Ælfred the Great is recorded as having gifted a pair of fine hounds to the Archbishop of Reims and the value of such dogs could be considerable. An account of how a good dog was valued survives from the 10th century  in the Laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), a Saxon King from SW wales :

‘the value of the king’s Deer-hound is 240d when trained; 120d untrained, 60d when 1 year old, 30d when a puppy in the kennel and 15d from time of birth to when it opens its eyes.’ The king’s greyhound, if trained is worth 120d and his lapdog 240d. Conversely, a free-holder’s deer-hound or lap-dog is valued at 120d. A ‘foreigner’s’ lap dog is, however, valued at only 4d; the same value put on a ‘common house dog’

240 pence doesn’t sound a lot but it equates to at least £2,500 in modern terms.

Greyhound or Lurcher?

With the Conquest in 1066 came a new ruling class and if anything the Norman royalty took hunting  with dogs to a new level. It’s from this time we see the Greyhound gaining cult status among the wealthy (think footballers and Ferraris). Laws were passed forbidding common people to own a Greyhound  but  they were so expensive and sought after anyway that they were beyond the means of common serfs. In fact it’s all a bit of a grey area (no pun intended) because back in the 12th century  the same dog could  be called a Greyhound or Lurcher depending upon whether it was owned by a Norman Lord or a common serf.
Under the Norman kings,  huge swathes of forest were protected by law as hunting areas reserved for the king and his friends so that by the late 12th century almost one-third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest. All of Essex was afforested, and on his accession Henry II declared all of Huntingdonshire a forest (the clue is in the name!).
But hunting wasn’t just for sport. As medieval farming practices meant that most animals were slaughtered before winter, so any deer or boar caught in the hunt were really important for the Royal table.  Protecting the game against poaching was paramount and Forest law prescribed harsh punishment for anyone who committed any of a range of offences within the forests. The law decreed that no one living in, or near the forest, could own a hunting dog and any commoner’s dog that looked capable of bringing down a deer was either killed, maimed or hambled (its claws pulled out). In a hard winter there must have been a great temptation to poach the odd deer and this is probably when the common man started experimenting with Sighthound crosses that we recognise today as a Lurcher

Since then, the modern Greyhound  has moved away from these original hunting dogs to become  a pure Sighthound with a pedigree status to provide  entertainment and sport for a society no longer dependent on hunting for meat, while the Lurcher has retained the more fundamental form with brain and nose!

There are no accurate historical references to Lurchers because their function was illegal and they were generally owned by the illiterate common folk but they were obviously a favoured dog. In Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting Hunters in the Snow we see three men returning from a  hunt accompanied by their dogs, the majority of which are clearly Lurcher type dogs

lurcher rock art

The Egyptians

Wherever prehistoric art is found depicting dogs then you will see a representation of some strain of Sighthound. The Pharaohs of Egypt famously loved to hunt with dogs, depictions of which  appear on tomb art from pre-dynastic times right through to finds in the fabulous tomb of King Tutankhamun. It’s now believed that Tutankhamun died as the result of a chariot accident probably while out hunting  and one of the most spectacular finds from his tomb is the gold Ostrich fan showing him  in his chariot on a hunt with a sight hound. Alongside all the fabulous gold and precious material archaeologists found, he had a leather dog collar buried with him, possibly from his favourite dog.

The ancient Egyptian name for the hunting dog was Tesem Dog tsm.png and it’s commonly depicted as the prick-eared, leggy dog with a curled tail that any modern day Lurcher owner would instantly recognise. There is a modern breed of sight hound known as the Pharaoh Hound which is  a native of Malta and its native name in Maltese, Kelb tal-Fenek  means “Rabbit Dog” which gives you a clue as to what it was originally bred for!  Popular myth holds that the breed is descended from the Tesem and while DNA analysis has shown that  there is no genetic link it’s easy to see the similarities between the breed and images of dogs found on the walls of ancient Egyptian Tombs.

Tutankhamun sighthound collar
roman lurchers
bayeaux tapestry hunting dogs
stag hunt with dogs 1490
lurchers in Bruegel painting 1565
Knights tomb with greyhound
stained glass lurchers
Sarah Bernhardt with a Lurcher

The Modern Lurcher

Throughout the medieval period the Greyhound became associated with the nobility not just because of its hunting prowess but as everyone who has owned a Sighthound knows, you can’t help falling in love with their beauty and wonderful temperament. It’s well documented that Greyhounds were kept in comfort and luxury in the Lord’s hall while the other dogs were kept outside in all conditions and such was the bond that you can see some wonderful examples of the loyal Greyhound accompanying their master in death from the elaborate carved stone tombs of the time. Around then we also meet the Greyhound for the first time in English Literature in Chaucer’s Monks Tale (1340)

Greyhounds he had, as swift as bird in flight.
Since riding and the hunting of the hare
Were all his love, for no cost would he spare

Strangely, it seems that the Greyhound declined as a breed in the late medieval period and all of today’s pedigree Greyhounds can be traced back to the  private 18th century and 19th century studbooks when they became popular again with the wealthy for coursing and racing. Since then, with pedigree status, they have been bred  primarily for racing and it seems obvious that the medieval Greyhound was much more akin to our beloved Lurcher with a lot of different genetic material constantly being added to improve the breed. It’s really from  this time onward that the Lurcher begins to to take on its  own identity as the plucky crossbred hunting dog for the common man and it’s easy to imagine that some likely lad came up with the idea of throwing his bitch in season into the path of one of the local Lord’s Greyhounds to get his Lurcher pups.
The resulting off spring would have two great advantages. Firstly it would have the addition of a bit of “nose” to increase its ability to hunt and secondly the introduction of a few “brains” really helped to get a dog that was not just fast enough to catch small game but bright enough to be trained to bring it back (not that easy with Greyhounds)

There is much speculation about the derivation of the name Lurcher  and popular, because of its romantic association with Gypsies, is the suggestion that it comes from the ancient Romany word “lur” which means thief and “cur” meaning a mixed breed dog. Over the centuries it became one word – Lurcher. Another possibility is from the Middle English word lorchen, to lurk, or perhaps from lurken. Indeed the archaic meaning of the word lurcher is a prowler, swindler, or petty thief. (Ring any bells?) Another suggestion is a shortening of the french Le chasseur (the hunter). Wherever the name comes from today’s Lurcher is a hugely popular dog and has two big followings. The first and largest is undoubtedly among the dog lovers who have discovered that these cross bred hounds simply make the best house dogs: fabulous temperament, great fun and a joy to have around (as long as you hide the food).
The second smaller group is the modern day poacher/lampers who in many ways have been responsible who keeping the Lurcher strain healthy and vital by careful crossbreeding, not for looks or show but for continuously improving the dogs ability to do what it does best; chase and kill small game. It’s a contentious arena to enter and understandably there is high emotion when we talk about blood sports. However while there are a few pathetic men who think it’s big and clever to watch another animal being maimed or killed for fun, the majority of owners don’t get too upset if their beloved softy takes the odd rabbit or squirrel. Hunting with dogs and Hare coursing is illegal in the UK and people understandably get angry when they hear about gangs of men arriving with Lurchers with the sole intent to course for hares . Sign THIS

Today the comparative fortunes of the Lurcher and the Greyhound seem to have swapped round. The Greyhound, like all pedigree dogs, has suffered at the hands of breeders but has also paid a terrible price through the racing industry. A racing Greyhound’s career will end between the ages of four and six  when it’s no longer competitive and while some dogs are kept for breeding most of them are put out for adoption as pets. Here in the UK, according to the BBC, one in four retired Greyhounds finds a home as a pet but it’s still estimated that thousands of healthy dogs are killed every year.  Other Greyhounds are sold to research labs, and a trainer was recently exposed for offering  ‘slow’ dogs to the Liverpool university for “research”. Other horror stories include the recent report of a man  in the North East of England who is believed to have destroyed as many as 10,000 healthy Greyhounds with a captive bolt gun. The list goes on.

By comparison just have a quick look at your Lurcher right now who is probably dozing contentedly on the best settee in the house dreaming about food or rabbits and trying to sum up some energy for his next walk.

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