Something old, something new

Meet Gus. While new to me, and perhaps new again to this country, Gus is really very old. Gus is a Murray River Retriever, an old landrace of gundogs endemic to Australia. Their early history is unclear, as they hail from a time before standardization of the spaniel and retriever breeds, and probably represents a blend of the generic type of water spaniels and retrievers that were very common in the UK during the early to mid 1800's. He bears striking resemblance to drawings of the now extinct Norfolk retriever and early water spaniels, and there are photographs of Murrays' as early as the 1890's showing the exact same type as seen today. Of course, there have been more recent additions to the breed, but a recent DNA sampling project by the Murray River Retriever Association has defined them as a distinct breed on the gundog spectrum with no close relatives, and falling in between the spaniels and retrievers. They have been kept and bred purely for the purpose of waterfowling in the south and southeast of Australia. Mainly along the Murray River, naturally.

The Murray River Retriever Association also keeps a registry of these dogs, with some particular lines having being kept recorded on paper by avid Australian shooters since the 1950's and 60's. In my opinion, to have a breed of gundog, that breeds true to type, which historically was bred purely on its performance without the whims and fancies of the show dog and pet crowd, is an absolute treasure and is to be protected jealously at all costs. Ironically, the Association that sets out to protect it may be its undoing as there is a concerted effort towards Kennel Club registration. While registration in itself is not a bad thing, the associated hobby of conformation showing is. It has been proven time and time again, the world over, to be the undoing of many sporting breeds through the selection of dogs not based on what they are able to do, but what they look like. The healthy and long-lived status the Murray currently enjoys is a direct result of the way it has been bred thus far, and to change that would be folly. Arkwright predicted the work/show split in the pointer; critics of Lavarack predicted the very same split in the setter. If there is one proven way to ruin a gundog breed, this is it! The Murrays' good looks could prove it's downfall. Luckily the Association is a fair way off being eligible for KC breed status, so there is time for the association to put plans in place to prevent this. In a perfect world, some form of performance testing before being able to breed, such as what the Germans use for their native hunting breeds, would be ideal. This could be as simple as passing a basic retrieving test. Other methods could mean specifying that they are never to be shown, or leaving the breed standard deliberately ambiguous to protect the regional differences in Murray types. An open studbook would be almost essential also, to bring in dogs of good type and proven performance to keep as much diversity in the breed as possible. All of this is achievable, if the breed association chooses to do so. Will it happen? Time will tell. Lets hope time is kind to the Murray River Retriever.

All gundogs are essentially a product of the industrial revolution, much like the breechloading shotgun, when household wages went up and the cost of shooting became within reach of the average person. They are a precious, living, breathing and continually developing treasure. If we were to have a terrible global accident, a nuclear holocaust if you will, we would be able to recreate the breechloading shotgun, among other things, from blueprints. If we allow our precious gundog genetics to deteriorate, or even worse, to become extinct, they are lost forever. This we can be certain of.

I'll leave you with a photo of Gus, doing what he has been doing for nearly 200 years.

Gus (Stanley's Jelbo, by Phillip's Ruger out of CB Murray's Tully) at 5 months in the Piako River, New Zealand

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