29 March 2002

Farm wives strut their stuff at the dog Mecca

Jeremy Hunt has been to

Crufts and found plenty of

farm folk in the show ring

A BARE-FOOTED blonde in a tiger-skin suit makes a stunning sight as she glides around the ring with her golden-coated Afghan hound.

Dog and handler appear almost to float on air as they sail spectacularly across the vivid green-carpet.

From the ringside, packed three deep with supporters of this aristocratic breed of desert hound, a comment is heard: "What wonderful movement." A bystander retorts: "And the dogs not bad either."

It is certainly an image of glamour and glitz but then this is Crufts – the greatest dog show in the world, where 21,000 dogs from 177 different breeds gathered earlier this month for a four-day extravaganza that proved, beyond doubt, that the British dog industry is booming like never before.

Crufts – now an international flagship event for anything and everything to do with dogs – packed five vast exhibition halls of the NEC, Birmingham. Bumper crowds thronged around the rings and went on a multi-million £ spending spree on the hundreds of trade stands.

Each of the four days at Crufts has its own particular style directly attributable to the breeds of dogs being shown. On the days that schedule breeds like poodles as well as those in the toy group there is no shortage of flamboyance and high-fashion among the handlers. Turn-up on hound or gundog day and tweeds and tartans take over from tiger-skin and tight trousers.

Dog showing is addictive and even farming families become hooked. It can open up horizons they never dreamed of, which is certainly the case for farmers wife Pam Jones, whose canine connections have led to an invitation to go on a moose hunt!

She had taken a day off from the familys sheep farm in mid-Wales to show her Hamiltonstovare – Swedish Foxhound – named Tedandi Florence Nightingale of Meillion. Last year the bitch was Best of Breed at Crufts and this year stood third in her class.

&#42 Strong-willed

Mrs Jones says the Hamilton-stovare can be strong-willed. There are only 200 in the UK and she has plans to import a new pup from Sweden.

"I have been invited to go on a moose hunt when I go over to collect my pup, and you do not get many moose in mid-Wales," joked Mrs Jones.

Carol Gill had left husband Ian at home with the 100 suckler cows they run on their farm at Stanley, Co Durham. Mrs Gill admits she adores "the dog game". Shes been showing and breeding dogs for 17 years and keeps Gordon Setters, Irish Setters and a Field Spaniel.

"The Gordon Setter is my passion. It has a beautiful jet-black coat with rich-tan markings on the face and legs. It is a wonderful breed with a lovely temperament, but is a real one-person dog."

Mrs Gill, who missed out on a prize card at the show, says winning is not everything: "My dogs are my life, win or lose."

The UKs highest yielding Holstein cow, Ablench Tesk Esme 3rd – which has just given 18,500kg in one lactation – is not the only headliner on the farm of the Cox family from Evesham, Worcs. Barbara Cox and her daughter Mary run the successful Lenches kennel of Labrador Retrievers. They have been in the breed for 30 years and had a team of four dogs at the show.

Lenches Labradors are well known in the UK and include a champion bitch. The Coxs have sent dogs to Italy, France and Spain and another export became an American champion.

"Breeding and showing dogs is an all-consuming interest, but Crufts is unique. It is the pinnacle of the dog world. The best of the very best," says Barbara Cox.

Over in the gamekeepers classes and a familiar face from the sheep rings of the summer shows was handling a black Labrador named Loynton Blackthorn.

Jean Blacknell, renowned for her winning Jacob sheep, was in the "picking up team" class representing the Hatton Grange Estate in Staffs.

"I have bred Labs for many years and pick up all through the season. But I think I will stick to showing sheep," said Mrs Blacknell.