The Leatherman Tool of Terriers

The fell in the UK’s Cumberland County is a rugged, inhospitable, barren, high altitude landscape that “grows” rocks, rough grass, bracken and wet rushes.

Foxes like the fell for their hiding places. Sheep munch on its vegetation.

Photo of Steel Fell by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Fox and Sheep occupying the same real estate, however, has never been a good mix; the former is the main cause of death of the latter’s newborns. In the 18th century, sheep owners tried to mitigate their losses with the help of a little dog one could describe as the leatherman tool of terriers.

This dog was expected to bolt his quarry out of narrowly spaced rock outcroppings. As such, the dog needed to be small and nimble enough to navigate through tight spots in scree and boulders. If the dog’s head could fit, his body would fit.

Once bolted, fox typically look for a ledge or high rock, so the dog in pursuit had to be able to scamper over obstacles such as “borrans” (huge piles of boulders) to reach the fox.  Unlike other terriers whose job was essentially done once the fox was bolted from its hole, this terrier was expected to dispatch the fox through mortal combat. It called for gameness and a thick hide to withstand bites from an opponent that could outweigh the dog by several pounds. We spare readers details of the punishing injuries these dogs sometimes got, but astonishingly, they never gave up.

The terrier often performed his task in rain or sleet, over snow or glacial deposits of rugged fell country, and it could take from dawn to dusk. This called for tough paw pads, enough length of leg to run all day, and the stamina to do it.

This was a lot to ask of a 15 pound dog, but there was a dog that was a specialist at this kind of work, the fell terrier, the breed we know today as the Lakeland Terrier.

In other districts, “Lakies” were employed to control other animals regarded as vermin, namely marten and otters, and in time, the breed became part of organized fox hunts, as well.  Tommy Dobson, founder of the Ennerdale and Eskdale Foxhound packs, bred these “game little terriers” which were reportedly his favorites.

An excellent accounting of this breed’s earlier days can be found in Bryan Cummins’ The Terriers of England & Wales.  Some parts are hard to read for the soft hearted person, but terrier folk know that the breed they love today was borne of stern stuff needed to do a tough job for hard bitten people.

Image: Lakeland Terrier by Paul Doyle

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