Talbot Radcliffe’s Breeding Philosophy
(Originally in the December/January, 1992-93 issue of Gun Dog Magazine. Reprinted with permission of D. Glenn Martyn)


“There’s a taxi!”, shouted my friend and Montana hunting buddy, Gary, above the wind. “Let’s go!” We were on our way to the vast Predaddfed Estate on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales.

“Delighted to see you both in February,” Englishman Talbot Radcliffe’s note had said. “please give us two to three days’ notice and arrange to stay with us overnight Best regards, Talbot.” Why had we come? Because of an English springer spaniel named Saighton’s Scud.

Born on Radcliffe’s estate in 1977, Scud, whose name literally means “to run or move swiftly” or “a gust of wind” was the continuation of hundreds of years of spaniel breeding, decended down through the famous O’Vara and Saighton lines. Hunted on traditional pheasants shoots until almost age two, he was purchased as a potetional field trial dog by American field trialer Janet Christensen.

“Scud’s a great bird finder,” his owner/handler, Christensen, had said after the trial. But her list want on: easy to handle, a good house dog, easy care caot.

“Just what the hunter wants,” I thought, ” an eager, trainable hunting companion with first rate instincts.

And he’s even a good house dog!” As a springer gun dog breeder, I knew I had found the stud dog I was looking for. Later that fall Scud won the U.S. National Amateur Championship.
In 1980 he earned a place in springer history. That year he won both the U.S. and Canadian Nationals and the U.S. National Amateur Championship. Series after series he put on dazzling displays of bold, bird-finding ability. Three national championships, all in one year – a record. He went on to become a top producer and was the top field trial sire in 1983, 1984 and 1985. He died in 1989.

National Champion Saighton’s Scud was the result of a unique blend of Talbot Radcliffe’s skill and tenacity in maintaining his line of springers and Janet Christensen’s abilities as a field trial handler. His wins were a tribute to his breeder, his handler and his heritage. And it was in search of this heritage that I travelled to the Isle of Anglesey.

Past woodlands and farms, hedgerows and boundaries, we drove toward what our taxi driver had called “the shooting place.” Sportsmen come here from all over the world. From October through January the horn still sounds as bearers and their spaniels push hundreds of pheasants through woodland and field toward waiting shooters at their stations.

But we hadn’t come for pheasants – not this trip anyway. We were here for answers. Questions in hand, I searched for insight into just how a superdog like Saighton’s Scud was produced. Radcliffe had the answers. With over 400 first-place U.S. field trial wins and numerous national champions to his credit, his Saighton springers had made him the most influential springer breeder of our time.

Two old stone pillars frame the entrance to Presaddfed. We pulled through and stopped. Hidden in the woods ahead stood our accommodations, the 12th century mansion where the War of the Roses had been planned. We had finally arrived.

Escorted into the mansion’s drawing room that evening, we sat down for the interview. A robust man in his eighties, Talbot Radcliffe’s mind was keen and quick.

“Were you born in Wales?” I asked (I resolved my questions would get better as I went along).
“No, on the Welsh border.” Radcliffe settled into his chair, seeming a lot more comfortable in this situation than I did.

“Did you have springers when you were a boy?” “Yes, I got my first springer when I was 12.” “When did you start breeding springers?” “When I was 15 years of age.”
“And when did you become involved in field trials?” “In 1934.”
“I remember that your original dogs were from the O’Vara line.”
“Yes, that’s 1934 when I became friendly with the O’Varas.”
“And how did you know they existed?”

Now the story began and the keys to producing dogs like Scud started to become clear.

“Well, I was here in Anglesey with my wife. And we went to see a litter just across the island and they absolutely nearly made me weep they were so wonderful. And they were 10 pounds each and I couldn’t afford it. And we left them because I couldn’t afford to buy one. But I had the full intention of getting into the strain as soon as I could.”

Radcliffe soon owned a pup sired by the famous field trial champion, Spy O’Vara. He called her Saighton’s Skip. The English Springer Spaniel in North America had this to say about the O’Varas of Wales: “The O’Vara dogs are widely known as brilliant and dependable workers… the O’Varas go on and on, an enormous family, usually in the winners column.” Spy and Peter O’Vara are described as “great field dogs.”

Too often breeders start with inferior stock and try to upgrade. Radcliffe avoided this mistake.
“So obviously, you have to attribute some of your success to starting with good dogs,” I began. He immediately interrupted me.

“Not some of it, all of it. All of it. There’s 300 years of bloodlines behind those. We knew 100 years of it when I started. It’s 150 now. And so you’ve got 100 out of Selwyn Jones and his professional handler Joe Greatorex. They dedicated their lives to producing this type of dog – which they did. And they were very successful at it. And then they were good enough to get me going on it. I take no credit for the foundation stock, however. It was perfect. I’ve had the sense, I think, the sense to keep it reasonably perfect. I’ve had my ups and downs, well, you do, you’re bound to.”

And so Radcliffe’s first and most important principle for the dog breeder: start with the best.
In 1955 Radcliffe had travelled to America to observe U.S. field trials. By 1960 he announced a goal to produce springers that would win in this country. What was needed, he decided, was a fast, stylish dog that would handle. Americans wanted a dog that was longer on leg, with more white, that could operate in a burst of speed with his own style. It must also withstand the pressures of trials with a level head. With this goal made public, he set out to provide this kind of dog. A look at the win record of the ’60s and ’70s and beyond shows just how well he met his goal.

Breeding Policy
“It seems to me that the success of the Saighton springers has depended on several things,” I began.

“First would be the O’Vara dogs you started with.” “Yes, that’s number one,” Radcliffe replied. “And number two,” I continued, “would be -” “Breeding policy. Breeding policy and dedication
and fidelity to your dogs.”

Radcliffe places great emphasis not just on the great dogs in his line, but on the entire strain and especially the families. In his book, Spaniels for Sport, Radcliffe says:
“I believe the safest way to produce good trainable material is to breed into known families, keeping close family connections in each succeeding mating, always making certain you know which particular family quality you wish to reproduce. So over the years, you will be able to forecast your next plan to strengthen the stock, eliminate weaknesses, determine size and color, and establish and ensure trainability. I believe you do not need to look for outcrosses at more than five year intervals, assuming you breed one litter per annum. Breed within families for happy and satisfying results.”

What is a family? Radcliffe means the same thing we do: father, mother, brothers and sisters. To evaluate a dog’s true breeding potential, ask yourself: Are his parents and siblings of the same caliber? It has been said you should judge the quality of your breeding not by the best pup in the litter, but by the worst. Radcliffe took this a step further: “If you’re linebreeding successfully, there shouldn’t be a top dog in the litter.” Out of five pups, there should be four “top dogs,” he explained.

When I asked Radcliffe what he attributed Scud’s great success to, he immediately replied, “Janet Christensen.” Sure, Scud was exceptional, but he came from a long line of exceptional springers. A look at the record shows many closely- related Saighton dogs at the top of the winner’s column. Saighton’s Scud wasn’t alone at the nationals. He brought his relatives with him.
Even if the overall quality of your line is high, you still need many closely-related families to draw on. Each family has its own strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to account for both. Plan. Compensate. Strengthen good points (Radcliffe calls them “credits”). You even tolerate some faults in a family as long as the credits are there.

“You can breed your faults as well as your good points. You’ve got to live with it,” said Radcliffe. “You might sacrifice in one generation but gain something more the next.”
And now the scope of Radcliffe’s breeding policy became clear. When most of us Americans look at our gun dog’s pedigree, we see individual dogs. When Talbot Radcliffe looks at a Saighton pedigree, he sees (and knows) entire families. Geneticists tell us it’s not just the dog you see that counts, it’s his gene pool he brings to the breeding. Radcliffe proved it.

saighton-history“You’re not really breeding a dog and a bitch, you’re breeding ten families on each side, aren’t you! Yes, that’s the bigger thing I said to you. That’s it. That’s the secret of the thing,” said Radcliffe. “That’s what many Americans won’t accept. Chiefly because very few of them have got ten families to go to. They’re not patient enough.”

Breeding within the strain takes time. Talbot has been breeding his unique springer strain at Presaddfed for over 50 years. “Nobody lives to as old as I am to keep up to,” Radcliffe told me with a smile. “I’ve been lucky. Everybody looks at breeding as a short-term expediency.”

Linebreed on Outstanding Individuals
Even a man like Talbot Radcliffe, with his eye set firmly on the “big picture,” is bound to have his favorites: “I got Saighton’s Stinger when he was eight weeks old. I knew him. He knew me. He latched onto me at eight weeks old and I latched onto him. There’s no doubt about that.”
“Did you know he would be an exceptional dog or have the potential!” I asked.

“Yes, yes, he was exceptional. I don’t know why. He was photogenic. When he was in a crowd, he loved the crowd. He’d play to a crowd. He’d act for a crowd. He was a tremendous dog.”
Saighton’s Stinger won the 1965 English National Championship. He still holds a special place in Talbot Radcliffe’s heart.

There are three other things to know about Stinger. First, he was the seventh generation, descended from Radcliffe’s original Saighton bitch, Skip; on both sides he was O’Vara and Saighton. Second, he passed on his bold hunting style and “lethal nose,” as well as his pleasing disposition and intelligence. And finally, he would be used to produce other dogs.
In 1975 Radcliffe’s ads in the “Springer Bark” said:
I have been striving to linebreed my springers to a higher standard. With the help of Field Trial Champion Saighton’s Stinger, I am producing TOP PROSPECTS for the future. All carrying DOUBLE CROSSES OF HIS BLOOD. LEVEL HEADED, INTELLIGENT and SPEED MERCHANTS. I will fly over the first this March – the next twelve will be personally selected and be ready for the late spring and summer. By January 1976 ALL will have had a full season working daily on natural game THIS IS ALL IMPORTANT FOR WINNING AWARD. His progeny will continue carrying my flag with DISTINCTION.

Scud’s Pedigree
A look at Saighton’s Scud’s pedigree reveals a classic example of linebreeding on English National Champion, Saighton’s Stinger. Follow me on this one: pedigree study can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to be.

Here is what the pedigree shows:
1) Saighton’s Seeking (Scud’s father) was Stinger’s grandson (father’s side) as well as both a great-grandson and a great-great-grandson (mother’s side);
2) Sophie of Saighton (Scud’s mother) was a Stinger granddaughter (mother’s side) as well as a great-granddaughter (father’s side).

In addition, you’ll notice that Silla of Saighton (Scud’s grandmother on his father’s side) and Sophie of Saighton (Scud’s mother) were sisters. That makes Scud the result of a nephew (Seeking) x aunt (Sophie) breeding. But that’s inbreeding! you say. Right. But it’s breeding on an outstanding dog (Stinger) and an outstanding strain (Saighton). That’s why it worked so well. Close breeding like this with inferior stock leads to inferior (or worse) pups. The same process with exceptional stock leads to exceptional success. In this case, National Field Champion, Saighton’s Scud.

Did Radcliffe share anything else? You bet. Five ideas stand out:
• Select for Natural Abilities Radcliffe emphasizes six natural abilities you can’t train into your dog – again the importance of excellent heredity in a first-rate gun dog.
Docility: desire to please his master;
Courage: makes a dog hit the thickest cover or cross a flooded river;
Style: decisive, dashing, merry bustle, and a flashing tail;
Nose: a lethal, pin-point nose;
Retrieving: bold, fast, direct return and no hardmouth;
Stamina: ability to keep going all day at his best pace.
These are the traits you select for, along with things like intelligence and level-headness.

• Don’t Forget Structure
Saighton dogs are among the best-looking, structurally sound field trial springers. They’re typically strong and well-proportioned with good bone and good spaniel type. Radcliffe explained why: “It’s all important. It’s got to be. I mean, if you give it the machinery, it’ll run. If it hasn’t got the machinery, it won’t run.”

“So you’re trying to maintain all these things we listed, plus structure and you’ve been able to do it,” I said.
“If they haven’t got structure, they haven’t got the other things – they don’t produce the other things,” he responded.

Remember the Eyes
“It’s really difficult to maintain really dark, brown eyes. Really, the eyes are the chief thing about a springer, that really chocolate-colored eye. I’ve lost a little. I’d give anything to get back to it.”

It’s the Bitches
When I asked Radcliffe, “Which dog would you attribute the most influence to?” he quickly corrected me, “Bitches, not dogs. Bitches will produce your dogs, your future dogs.” I asked him how much importance he put on the bitches for breeding and he replied, “80 percent. I know scientists won’t agree, but I know it’s your foundation to build on.” Why would Radcliffe emphasize bitches after Stinger’s obvious impact on Scud? The answer is he’s looking at the importance of families over time. For this reason, he never sells his bitches.

Presaddfed Estate
Saighton produces 20 to 30 male pups for sale to America each year. Radcliffe keeps them all until fullgrown (12 to 18 months). This gives him a chance to develop the pups on natural game, fully evaluate their potential, and match them with their new owners. They’re trained and then hunted an entire season on traditional shoots with guests from around the world. “One season at Presaddfed equals a lifetime in the United States,” Janet Christensen told me. Saighton springers and Presaddfed – one could not have existed without the other. When they leave Wales, they’re true bird hunters. So here I had it – Talbot Radcliffe’s formula for success! The secret to the great Saighton’s Scud: Start with the best, stay in the line, breed between your “families,” linebreed on outstanding individuals and emphasize good bitches. Then keep the pups until they’re old enough to develop and evaluate. And, finally, throw in a large measure of dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm, plus the financial resources (thousands of acres and hundreds of birds) to carry out your plan.

Yes, I had the answers, but there was more to this story than techniques of successful dog breeding. The answers lay in the man himself. A man who had devoted his life to a superb strain of English springer spaniels and the sporting history of which they’re so much a part. I was pleased to share in that history.

Suddenly, Talbot Radcliffe rose from his chair, signalling with a nod that the interview was over. “And now”, he said, smiling, “tell me more about Montana. I want to know about the grizzly bears!”