2 April 1999

Pack of Jacks are lively bunch of red-hot ratters

Jack Russells – you either

love them or you hate them.

says Jeremy Hunt, who met

a farming family with their

very own pack of these

characterful terriers

DORIS, Walter, Muffin, Legs, Austin, Morris, Jake – Helen Smith tries to achieve the impossible and count a seething mass of Jack Russell terriers spinning and leaping with excitement in the farmyard.

"There are about 11 here but we have another seven," says Helen as she fails to prise some of the older members of this tribe from the warmth and comfort of her kitchen at Moss Farm, St Helens.

But the promise of a mouse hunt in the straw stack next to the farms livery stables is enough to create frenzied yapping among the rest. The short walk to the stack sees the pack tearing up and down the lane investigating every clump of grass, every hillock of earth. Even newly pushed up mole hills are excavated with verve as tiny yet powerful front feet send soil flying in all directions.

"They are just such a fun breed and so intelligent," says Helen as the wind blows a newly discovered plastic football across the fields and sends another pair scurrying off in hot pursuit.

&#42 No puppies sold

Helen acquired her first Jack Russell 13 years ago. Her name was Ginny and she is now the matron of the family. Over the years several litters have been bred but no puppies have ever been sold.

"Its a family that has just grown," says Helen whose position as leader of the pack is evident as they loyally follow her on her daily chores around the farm.

Ginny is the mother of many of the present day pack. At one point she was not going to be allowed to have another litter but one night something happened to change her owners mind.

&#42 Baby rabbit

"I stopped the Land Rover to let her out to chase some rabbits. She came back with a baby rabbit, still alive, laid it down on my lap and tried to get it to nuzzle her for milk. I knew I had to let her have one last litter."

Mick is probably the most streetwise of the gang. Tan and white and stronger than most he has left his mark as a sire. But alas, since he was

"hijacked" his

fatherhood

days are over.

"We had

a horse box stolen from the yard and he was in it. They dumped him on the main East Lancs road and he was handed in to the RSPCA. I appeared on the regional TV programme Crimefile and

made a plea

for his

return but

by the

time

we had traced him he had been castrated!"

Only two dogs live outside. Every evening the pack moves indoors with Helen. "I know its sounds like insanity but they have become part of the family. Numbers just kept increasing. I remember getting to 12 and thinking, well, another two wont make much difference."

The matriarchal Ginny is still "top dog" but there is a definite pecking order lower down the scale. Helen believes Jack Russells have an uncanny level of intelligence. Jake, a dog born with only three viable legs, has been known to significantly exaggerate his limp when he craves extra attention.

"Life can get a bit hectic," Helen admits. "Everytime you move towards the door they think we are off an another ratting adventure. But we discovered that when we tell them on Sunday morning that we are "only going to church" they dont bother to get up. So now, anytime we want some peace and quiet we just tell them we are off to church again."

The highlight of the day is when the doors to the straw stack are opened. Like a whirlwind of white and tan torpedoes the pack hurtles towards the bales, clambering to the top of the high stack, squeezing in between bales, scratching furiously at the slightest whiff of vermin.

Suddenly a mouse leaps out from beneath a bale and starts to scramble in panic up the wall; its escape route is spotted and Woolly, a broken-coated athletic-type, leaps two feet up the wall to grab the mouse in his jaws with the precision of an exocet.

&#42 Growling defiance

"Thats what they are best at," says Helen as Woolly struts off triumphantly carrying his prize and growling in defiance to quell the jealousy of the rest of the pack.

Every day some of the terriers are taken down to another steading on the farm where there has been a particularly severe rat problem this winter.

"Its more effective and safer than using poison or shooting. The dogs can get as many as 12 rats in one session and there are plenty who bear the scars of viscious scraps with defiant rats."

Unlike many Jack Russells the Moss Farm pack are tolerant of cats. They have a particular favourite named Liberace, a large tabby and white cat that seems convinced it is a terrier and often accompanies the rat-pack on its forays around the farm.

Over the years Helen has not only enjoyed having her Jack Russells as companions and as an effective vermin control team, but she has studied the behavioural patterns of such a large "dog family".

"You can actually watch the older dogs teaching the younger ones how to catch rats. This is very much a pack that is dependent upon me but still retains many natural instincts that would not be evident if we had just two or three terriers."

&#42 No litters planned

Helen is not planning any more litters which means keeping a very close eye on the bitches. But her sister, Margaret Francis, has a house on the farm and has her own three Jack Russells including a dog called Shrimp.

To ensure the amorous Shrimp doesnt take it upon himself to extend the dynasty even further she has adopted her own way of tapping into terrier intelligence.

Margaret says: "When there is a bitch that may be coming in season I just take one look at Shrimp and say sternly: "Dont even think about it. He looks up at me and, with his eyes, grudgingly agrees to curb his adour. Thats whats so great about Jack Russells – they know ever word you say."

Main picture: Helen Smith with Woolly, one of her 18 strong pack of Jack Russells. Helens sister Margaret (right) shares her interest in the breed. They are great vermin catchers and like nothing better than to go on a mouse hunt (above).