The Gamekeeper's Choice
Updated: Jan 26
Aristocrats, royalty, poachers, and gamekeepers all contributed to the development of the modern-day curly-coated retriever. In this post, we share a bit about the involvement of gamekeepers.
The curly was developed first for waterfowling. Many 19th-century waterfowlers, both professionals and hobbyists, wrote accounts of the talents of the curly coat as a hard-working, enduring waterfowl retriever.
The breed was once commonly found on commercials boats and barges, particularly in the Norfolk area of the United Kingdom. Curlies earned their keep by retrieving items from water, hauling docking ropes, protection and even hauling nets. The essence of the breed, however, can probably be traced to his most important role as the jack-of-all-trades assistant to English gamekeepers.
"The heyday of the curly coated retriever occurred not through its prowess as a water dog but through its general usefulness on a shooting estate," English Game Conservancy scientist Jonathan C. Reynolds wrote in 1988. Reynolds had a great source for his history of the breed: his great-great-uncle, Leonard Rogers, was a gamekeeper on the East Yorkshire Welton Hall Estate. The dogs pictured here, who were also prize winners in gamekeeper classes at dog shows, were owned by Rogers.
"Around the turn of the (20th) century, curlies were kept by gamekeepers on almost every shooting estate in Britain. Even when other breeds became available, many keepers preferred the "old-fashioned", intelligent curly,'' Reynolds wrote.
Why the curly instead of one of the spaniels or other retriever breeds? One reason was the ability of a curly to assist a gamekeeper when it came to tracking down a poacher or providing some protection if the encounter between gamekeeper and poacher turned nasty. Although the Welton Estate was equipped with an alarm gun system, gamekeeper Rogers actually ended up in the hospital a couple of times after encounters with poachers.
Big and substantial curly-coated retrievers could serve double-duty as game dogs and guard dogs. When a trespasser onto the estate was detected, gamekeepers would release the dogs.
Another gamekeeper, who plied his trade for more than 50 years in England, also chose a curly-coated retriever as his personal gun dog. Beginning in the late 1920s, Norman Mursell worked as a gamekeeper for more than 50 years for the Dukes of Westminster.
In his autobiography Come Dawn, Come Dusk, Fifty Years a Gamekeeper, Mursell writes about one of his star dogs, a curly-coated retriever named Sam.
"Most of the dogs used at Eaton in those days (Editor's note: the late 1920s and early 1930s) were black Labrador retrievers, as the yellow only became popular much later. Several keepers had flat-coated retrievers, dogs seldom seen these days, but I had at tht time a black, curly-coated retriever called Sam. He was particularly good at finding snipe, or for that matter almost anything, so I frequently had the job of remaining behind at a pit to find any snipe that hadn't been picked up,'' Mursell wrote.
"I remember once, at a pit which was particularly good for snipe and had a large area of the type of rush the birds favoured, having to remain behind to find a jack snipe. Everyone thought all the birds brought down had been accounted for, but the Duke was insistent that one still remained and that it was a jack snipe. This variety of snipe is the smallest of the breed and not easy to find on grassland, let alone in thick rushes.
"A couple of dogs had hunted the pit pretty well, picking up several birds, and of course this made it less easy for Sam. However he started working the pit systematically, as good dogs will, and after about ten minutes started to scratch away at the rushes until the mud underneath started to fly. Eventually he poked his nose down into the mud and his tail started to wag. Then he straightened himself up and picked his way to me with his head in the air and his muzzle covered in mud. I opened his mouth and there was a snipe--a jack snipe at that! His Grace was very pleased, to his credit he did not say, "I told you so"."
Many canine historians believe the curly declined in popularity when many breeders began concentrating on breeding solely for the show ring rather than for hunt and field purposes. I might explore that in a future post. Despite what some historians believe, there are still many curlies who can perform well as a waterfowl and upland dog so the field ability of the breed has not been totally bred out.
"Curly-coated retrievers can hold their own on any shooting field," Reynolds wrote in his 1988 article. "Their nose, stamina, intelligence and marking ability are first-rate."