Ireland’s Terrier Titan

Anyone in Ireland (and indeed, much further afield) who has an interest in working terriers will know the name of Seamus Erwin. What is more, anyone in Ireland who has a seriously good working terrier at the moment can more than likely trace its bloodlines back to a dog or bitch from Seamus’ kennels. He has bred fine and formidable lines for many years, brought in new blood from England to our working stock and he is also the man behind the country’s increasingly popular and hugely successful terrier and lurcher shows.

Like many of the leading lights in the sporting dog world, Seamus grew up with dogs. “My dad was a great man for fishing, but there was always a terrier or two about the house for ratting and so on. We would always take a terrier when we fished and the terrier ratted away. They were all cross bred terriers, in those days usually fox terrier crosses with a bit of bull terrier in them and nearly always brown and white or tan and white.”

With dogs as part of family life, it was only natural for Seamus to acquire a dog for himself when he was old enough to carry a gun. Unlike his father, however, right from the start, Seamus went for a recognised breed, rather than a cross. “My first dog was a Lakeland from a working strain out of Wales.”

Seamus’ first Lakeland served him well, but looking back over the dogs he has owned, the first one that really stood out as exceptional was another Lakeland, a black and red dog called Rusty. “Rusty was a fine working dog and was a real boon to me during the seventies and eighties when fox fur started to become valuable. He was good looking too and was very successful in the show ring. He won the Game Fair (Northern Ireland) terrier show two years in a row and qualified for the National Championship at Stoneleigh. Even in his latter years he was still showing well and he won the Best Veteran Terrier at Lowther Show.”

Rusty gave Seamus both the taste for success and the opportunity to meet terrier men from all over Britain and Ireland, most notably Gary Middleton from Kendal in Cumbria. The two first met at a show in England and have remained firm friends ever since. Gary’s dogs were exceptional, tracing their blood right back to Anthony Barker’s Chowd Face Rock line and Sid Wilkinson’s Red Rock line, old strains from the Patterdale area where both men lived. Seamus’ first Lakeland bitch came from Gary’s kennels and he mated this bitch to his own Rusty to produce a very smart looking strain of Lakelands.

With an eye to extending his kennels and bloodlines, Seamus then bought a little bitch bred by Bill Brightmore of Cumbria. This bitch – Tar – came to Seamus from Ken Smith from Glengormley and Seamus was so impressed with her that he went directly to Bill Brightmore to buy a dog – Blade.

With Tar, Seamus won the National Championships in Stoneleigh in its inaugural year, 1982. The little bitch beat 50 champions from regional shows all over the UK to be the first ever winner of the national event.

In due course, Blade was introduced to Tar and produced Sam, amongst others, including Gem and Rip, starting a blood line that is still very much in evidence in Irish working terriers today.

Raymond Robinson bought Sam after seeing him work foxes. Seamus had brought the dog down for a day’s hunting and when Raymond saw the dog at work, he wanted him. Seamus asked for £45 for the dog, the bargaining began, and Raymond paid for him with three foxes and £15. It turned out to be an excellent bargain for Raymond, as Sam followed in his mother’s footsteps and won the National Championship at Stoneleigh in 1985. These two Lakelands – Tar and Sam – are still the only two dogs from Ireland to have won the coveted Championship title.

While shows were good fun during the summer months, Seamus kept his terriers first and foremost for hunting. At one stage, he would have carried out vermin control all over the north of Ireland. Seamus and his friends would have accounted for anything up to 600 winter foxes and they also worked the spring on call out to farmers during the lambing season. As Seamus points out, when you hunted on a farmer’s ground in the winter season, you were obliged to go back to the farm in spring for the lambing season when the farmer needed your assistance.

Seamus hunted for fox fur from the late 1960’s to 1985. Then the stock market crashed. At the same time, fox furs went out of fashion in favour of synthetic fur and, with pressure from animal rights groups, the trade petered out. These days, he just keeps terries to work foxes on a pest control basis, still working ground for many of the same foxes and, by and large, still using the same Lakeland and Lakeland cross strains.

Over the years Seamus has developed a fondness too for white-bodied dogs – Jack Russell types and white Lakelands. White, as he says, can be easily seen.

The first white Lakeland Seamus say was back in the late 1970’s, at his friend, Gary Middleton’s home. It had been bred from two black-and-tan Lakeland terriers and was obviously a ‘throw-back’ to many years before when white terrier blood was introduced to the Lake District. Very possibly this happened in the village of Patterdale, most likely through a white Fox Terrier dog that had mated with Lakeland terriers. White terriers would start to appear in various litters then, even though the parents were black and tan.
These white terriers were looked down on because it was inferred that they weren’t pure bred and they were usually disposed of. However, Gary started keeping them. They had strong jaws, great heads, lovely conformation and very wiry coats and they were great workers.

Seamus expressed his admiration for the white terriers so, when Gary and his friend John Saunders visited Northern Ireland in the early ’80’s, they brought two white Lakeland pups as a gift for Seamus.

The dog, Chip, grew too big, so Seamus sold him on, but he kept the little bitch, Snap. An excellent terrier and great little worker, Snap won consistently at home and at many shows in England. Seamus mated Snap to a black and tan Lakeland, called Punch, who was also bought from Gary Middleton. The mating produced three pups, Frost, Duke and Gem. They were sold and all did well both in the show ring and working, so that once again, Seamus’ original breeding has spread out over all Ireland and back to England.

Apart from Seamus’ fame for breeding, showing and working terriers, he is also very well known as the organizer of terrier and lurcher shows and events at around Ireland, including in the Game Fair Championship Show.

Seamus was involved in the terrier events at the Game Fair right from its inception, both as an organiser and a competitor in the early days. The first ever Game Fair Championship was won by the late Harold Humphries, who pipped Seamus and his Lakeland dog, Rusty to the winning spot. In the second year of the Game Fair, Seamus could not be beaten, and Rusty took the Champion title home. Over the years since, however, as Seamus has become more and more involved in the organisation of the Game Fair Championship and other events around Ireland, he has had to give up competing himself, although he still travels to shows and competitions in England.

While clubs were part and parcel of the terrier scene in England, there were no clubs in Ireland to represent the interests of working terrier owners, so in 1984, Seamus and a group of his friends formed the Mid-Antrim Terrier and Lurcher Club. The club has grown to be the foremost club in all Ireland, and is responsible for all the major shows around the country – The Game Fair, Florencecourt, Punchestown, Louth and Slane.

It was at the Slane show, tied into the Game Fair at Slane, that the notion of an All Ireland Terrier and Lurcher Championship was conceived. “We were sitting over a few drinks, reflecting on the success of the Slane event and it was suggested that an All Ireland Championship, organised on the same lines as Stoneleigh, would be a good idea.”

The first All Ireland Championship, at Shane’s Castle in 1989, was sponsored by Irish Hunting Shooting and Fishing magazine (as it is to this day). Tommy Agnew judged the lurchers and the late Paul Blackledge from Great Harrowood near Blackburn judged the terriers. With the thoroughness that typifies everything that Seamus does, he ensured that show circuit in Ireland, culminating in the All Ireland Championship became qualifiers for the National Championship at Stoneleigh, placing terriers in Ireland firmly on international terrier scene.

These days, the show scene in Ireland has some very fine dogs, many bred from terriers that have come out of Cumbria through Seamus’ connections there. Seamus is very familiar with the working terrier stock throughout the country and knows where the best terriers in Ireland are to be found. “Terence McLaughlin would have some of the best terriers in the country at the moment, as would Pat Burns, Wesley Scott, John Heslip from Kilkeel, to name but a few, and of-course, Dessie Macken from Banbridge. These all have a nice stamp of terrier.”

When Seamus judges a terrier in the ring, first and foremost, he is looking for a dog to bolt foxes. “The ability to bolt a fox is paramount, so the terrier must be the right size, I must be able to span the dog. Then I look for a good jaw, nice teeth, enough teeth to defend himself, though I wouldn’t put a dog down for a few teeth missing, so long as he has enough to defend himself. He must have a very good jacket – a woolly undercoat and a good overcoat of nice stiff hair. Then I’m looking for a bold expression, good conformation, straight legs, turned over ears, good bold eye, nice length of neck tapering down into good shoulders, to give a narrow ribbed, a square coupled terrier.”

In his opinion as a judge, Seamus feels that the quality of terriers in Ireland has greatly improved over last 10 years. “We’re now winning shows consistently in Scotland, Ireland and Wales and our terriers are on a par with anything being shown nationwide and possibly sometimes superior.”

As a mark of the contribution that Seamus has made and his own personal standing in the terrier world, he is the only man from Ireland who has been invited to judge the National Championship at Stoneleigh.

Seamus has been ably supported in all he does by his wife Betty and over the years they have both made a great many friends and hunting companions. Perhaps the first terrier man to influence Seamus was the later Bobby Irons from Kells. Seamus hunted often with Bobby and he learned a lot from watching and listening to this fine old countryman.

Unfortunately, many of those who influenced Seamus’ life with dogs have passed away, but not without leaving their mark on Seamus. “There was the late Bill Brightmore from Kirkby Steven, in Cumbria – a legend among Lakeland breeders, the late Bill Gripton from Shropshire – a legend in his own lifetime and also the late Frank Buck from Leyburn, North Yorkshire.”

Today, Seamus himself, together with his very good friend, Gary Middleton from Kendal in Cumbria, would feature high on the list of the UK and Ireland’s top terrier gurus. Certainly, their influence in Ireland has been huge and the vast majority of working Lakelands in Ireland today are descended from the lines that Seamus and Gary have introduced to the country.

Seamus has put a great deal of time and effort into improving the standards of the working terrier in Ireland through breeding and showing, but hunting has always remained central to everything he has done.

“The terrier is a working dog, and it should be able to work – that’s the most important thing. I suppose I have achieved quite a lot over the years, but the highlight of it all is still that moment when a young terrier finds and works its first fox. It is quite something to breed a little terrier from good strong line, nuture it and train it and then watch it do its work.”


Article shared from the Country Sports and Country Life website.

1 thought on “Ireland’s Terrier Titan”

  1. I know Seamus well being a fellow Ballymena man. He was a friend of my late father. Most of the black terriers in Ireland are descended from the dogs he brought over here in the 1980s. Iloved going to the shows he ran with my father back in the 1980s where we raced and showed our whippetxgreyhound Lurchers. I recall Seamus had a great photo album full of dog photos which I loved looking at when I visited his house with my father during my youth. It would be a great archive for anyone interested in the history of working dogs in Ireland. Lots of dog men around the Ballymena area. The late Sammy McClintock was another great. He owned and bred some of the best Lurchers in the North.

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