Patrice Fellows turns the spotlight on a spaniel that confounded her own breeding to become one of the best ever, and a trainer who most definitely did it his way.
The late Keith Erlandson was a man steeped in spaniel training and he made up 20 FTChs, but none is as legendary as the cocker spaniel FTCh Speckle of Ardoon. Known in his home as The Polecat, she was, in his words, ‘brilliant, dauntless and dangerous to know.’
Erlandson also considered her ‘a freak of nature’. She was bred in Northern Ireland by Will Sloan out of Colleen of Elan, a ‘sticky little bitch’ who ‘never seemed inclined to do much work.’ Colleen was the offspring of two FTChs in a famous working strain that was in decline, probably due to too much intensive line breeding. Sloan decided to mate her in 1969, but was unable to choose any obvious sires due to an outbreak of Foot & Mouth in Northern Ireland - no animal could travel more than 10 miles. Undaunted, he went down the road and mated Colleen to an old show dog named Tireragh Silver Starlight, who didn’t have a trace of working or field trial blood in his pedigree. Two pups were born, Speckle and Wilgo, a dog.
Sloan believed that Speckle showed great potential and sent her to Erlandson for training, who was extremely sceptical about her breeding, which he described as ‘a show dog on a virtually non-working bitch.’ To his utter surprise, he found her intelligent and trainable, with ‘sheer natural drive and ability, and blatantly screaming potential.’ He soon felt at one with her, realising from experience that he had a phenomenal animal in his hands.
In 1971 she ran her first rabbit trial at Cromlix, with very limited experience in the field. “She hit the whin bushes like a tornado, scattering rabbits in all directions, seizing myxy ones, retrieving shot ones at speed.” Her first season she came on like a storm, winning four open stakes and several awards, and finishing off with a certificate at the Spaniel Championship. She was Erlandson’s second cocker to become a FTCh at just 17 months, with only 18 head of game shot over her.
The incredible hat trick
The next season in 1972 she ran consistently and won the Spaniel Championship at Blenheim with three finds, two retrieves and an absurdly difficult water test that only she and one other dog accomplished. She won again in 1973 in Derbyshire, having found three pheasants in a marshy spinney, and again with no run-off. Her last championship win was in 1974 at Elkstone in the Cotswolds. With these three consecutive wins she set a record for spaniels – both springer and cockers – that remains undefeated to this day. By the time she was four-and-a-half years old she had won nine open stakes, three spaniel championships and The Game Fair tests.
As a youngster she was almost too hot to handle, and her natural exuberance led to the occasional indiscretion. But she was exceptionally honest and never underhanded. She hunted any cover with venom and possessed the utmost drive and style. Physically, she was a short-coupled red roan bitch with perfect bone and balance and a good length of leg. She never produced any offspring as brilliant as herself, but her progeny is credited with helping to revive the breed when its reputation had hit a low point.
A controversial character
She won the first championship in Will Sloan’s name, who then gifted her to her trainer. Keith Erlandson was born in 1931 at Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. His father was from Sweden and he spent brief periods of his childhood there. He worked many years as a gamekeeper and then became a professional gundog trainer in North Wales above Fronchysyllte, by Langollen. Over his trialling career he made up 20 FTChs. He favoured springers but also made up five cockers and had many wins with retrievers and pointers.
He authored two classic books on gundogs, The Working Springer Spaniel and Gundog Training. He also wrote prolifically for the sporting press. Frank and often controversial in his opinions, he wrote with great authority and insight about gundogs.