13 July 2001


Fox collies – fact or fable?

Some say the union between

fox and dog is unlikely and

Jeremy Hunt might have

believed them – until

Glen came along

I HAD always had my suspicions about Glen but it was some time before I really plucked up the courage to say anything.

And when I did, most people thought I was completely mad. But I always knew he was far more than just another run-of-the-mill working sheepdog.

The old boys long gone now, but from the first day I saw him, languishing alone as the last of the litter in a makeshift farmyard kennel, I knew there was something different about him.

Even as a tiny pup Glen had an "edge". Yes, collies have "attitude" but this was different: his was a sharpness that went beyond that of a young collie. It was a look in his eye, the way he moved. I suppose it was body language but there was just something about him that was different.

At the time I knew little about the existence of fox collies – the result of a mating between a fox and a collie. I had heard tales from the Lake District and Wales of hill farmers being convinced that their collie bitches had been mated by dog foxes, but I have to say Id taken it all with a very large pinch of salt.

The subject of this unlikely love match had been a matter of conjecture for many years. Some experts on genetics say the union between the two species is unlikely although they admit there have been widespread successful matings – even recently – between wolves and dogs.

Those who support the theory that foxes and dogs will mate – and the subject was considered important enough to have been worthy of comment by Darwin – believe such a cross-match is more likely to take place when the dog is one of the "spitz" type breeds rather than a collie. Spitz breeds do have a "foxy" appearance which may lend credence to this school of thought.

&#42 Hybridisation?

Yet, Lionel Edwards (1878-1966), the renowned artist and country writer, discusses the possible "hybridisation" of the two species in his book The Fox published in 1949. There were records in France and Spain of individual "dogs" whose owners claimed them to be half fox.

Mr Edwards recalls correspondence published in Country Life magazine over 50 years ago regarding a dog that was shown at a show in Monte Carlo and was reputed to be the result of a cross between a Pomer-anian (the smallest of the spitz breeds) and a tame vixen.

So why did I suddenly start to think that Glen could be half fox? It was a gradual dawning. As he developed from a pup into a young adult he remained relatively small for a working collie. If his coat had been even vaguely foxy-red that would have been the give-away but he was a flashy tricolour.

Despite hiding behind this wonderful disguise he had a foxy head and prick ears and a very heavy tail that can only be described as a "fox brush". His gait was quite distinctive and most unlike any dog I had ever seen – he would often take several short "mincing" steps and then stop and lift his head as if listening or scenting something. It was a most unusual sight.

Glen was not a particularly good-tempered dog, even with those around him. He was always ill-at-ease but it was when he was packed off to the local boarding kennel for a short stay that he really proved there was far more to him than anyone realised.

He was booked into kennels owned by a friend of mine who had been in the dog business for years. These kennels were "five-star" and from a security point of view were like Fort Knox.

&#42 Settled in

Glen was duly delivered and settled into his kennel but soon after we arrived home we received a phone call. Apparently he had been put outside into one of the runs but had suddenly disappeared. The kennel staff were dumfounded. Dogs did not escape from this kennel – ever. But were they dealing with a 100% dog?

Glen had managed to scale the wall of his high wire pen – something that even the most lithesome cat would have found daunting. This was no cat – well not quite – this was Glen showing his true colours.

His "wild" genes had clearly gone into overdrive and hed tapped into a hitherto-latent ability to climb. It was certainly a very impressive piece of escapology.

Glen was found some time later happily skulking around the bottom of a hedge some distance from the kennels none the worse for his antics. But that incident placed the last piece in the jigsaw – Glen convinced me that there was more to the fox-collie than mere folklore.

Well known sheepdog expert Iris Combe, in her book Herding Dogs, devotes a chapter to fox collies where she investigates the international debate over dog and fox mating.

&#42 Unconvinced

Despite much anecdotal evidence, she is not convinced, although she includes an extract taken from the Fanciers Gazette of 1874 which included the report of a dog show in Glasgow: "There was nothing in the selling class, with the exception of Foxy, worth notice. Foxy is an interesting specimen of the Vulpo-canine cross, a hybrid but rarely seen; it appears as good tempered and as quiet as a lamb though showing considerably more of the fox than the dog."

Mystery will always surround the existence of the fox-collie. Fact or fable? I have no doubt in my mind – Glen made sure of that.

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