On Thursday, March 12, 1886 the following classified ad appeared in a French sporting journal:
For Sale: 20 Francs. 4 puppies born January 25, 1886, white and black épagneuls of the ancient breed of Artois. The father is the most handsome dog in the country. The breed has almost disappeared in France and is sorely missed by our old hunters. The mother is of the same breed. Mother and father out of hunting lines, solid point, on the plains, marsh or woods, hunting always in gun range. Contact M. Larivière, rifleman, Hesdin, Pas de Calais.
In addition to being a rifleman, it seems that Mr. Larivière also had a knack for writing catchy ads. The puppies he was selling were not actually from an “ancient breed”, but were more likely the descendants of a general type of black and white épagneul that had been in France for centuries and were still being bred in some areas.
Ten year's after Mr. Larivière's ad for puppies appeared in the papers, a Dutchman —Henri, count of Bylandt— also wrote about a northern black spaniel in his book, Dogs of all Nations
. Despite that, and a number of other references clearly establishing the existence of black and white épagneuls in northern France, black was not allowed for the various offshoots of the french Spaniel by any of the official standards drawn up in the early 1900s.
The reasons for this are not entirely clear but it is reasonable to assume that, like in other areas of Europe, black was considered “proof ” of crosses to English dogs and was seen as an impediment to establishing a truly homegrown breed. In any case, despite being out of standard, épagneuls with black and white coats were still bred by the hunters, mainly in the northern French regions of Picardie and Pas de Calais. Jean Castaing wrote that they were found “almost always” in the hands of snipe hunters in the valleys of the Somme, Canche and Authie, and that they probably came about by crossing French Spaniels
to English and Gordon Setters.
In the 1920s efforts got underway to organize the black and white dogs into an officially recognized breed. A number of well-known personalities including Eugène Cuvellier and Léon Verrier, one of the country’s top dog trainers and a friend of Emmanuel Boulet
, helped to stabilize and promote the black and white dogs from the north. But when a club
for the brown, white and tan Picardy Spaniel
was established in 1921, Blue Picardy Spaniels (as they were by then called) were not accepted. It wasn’t until 1938 that a standard was drawn up and the breed officially recognized. The issue that caused the delay seems to have been a disagreement among breeders concerning just how much of an English style the breed should have.
Eventually, it was decided that the Blue Picardy should remain “Continental” in its look and performance and the standard was, according to the website for the current club, “corrected to eliminate all English character”. As we shall see, however, while the English character may have been eliminated from the standard, in reality the breed would eventually become the most Britannic of all the épagneuls.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, efforts to promote the Blue Picardy faltered. After the war, the breed almost disappeared. While the Brittany
and to a certain extent some of the other varieties of épagneul managed to make progress, by the time Jean Castaing’s masterwork Les Chiens d’Arrêt
was published in 1960, the breed was in dire straits.
As for the Blue Picardy Spaniel, if it is still as it was intended to be, that is to say Continental in its form and character...after an effort by some breeders to maintain or reconstitute this variety during the first years that followed 1945 [it is] almost on the way to extinction.
Fortunately, the Blue Picardy survived due mainly to the efforts of Mr. Piras from Crotoy, who was virtually the only breeder still active after the war. Another breeder, Mr. Lemoing from central France, developed his own line of Blues and in 1973 participated in the first field trial for the breed, held at Malauzat. Until the 1990s, the Blue Picardy was more or less confined to northern France where it was mainly in the hands of hunters. It was essentially unknown in the rest of the world and consistently fell behind its cousin, the Picardy, in terms of the number of pups whelped each year. But the situation soon began to change.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the number of Blue Picardy pups whelped each year began to rise. This trend continued through the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2003, for the first time ever, Blues outnumbered Picardies. In 2008 a record 296 Blue Picardy pups were whelped, nearly three times as many as were whelped just the year before and ten times as many as were whelped in the difficult years after the Second World War. Today, the breed continues to grow and seems to be on sound footing. But it is becoming increasing clear that much of the demand for Blue Picardies is from the pet/companion animal market.
Some people are now concerned that the breed’s new found popularity may even threaten it as a gundog. Judging by the numbers of Blues entered in field events there does seem to be a trend developing: despite a much larger and growing population, far fewer Blues participate in field trials and hunt tests than Picardies. Nevertheless, there are still good numbers of talented, hard-hunting Blue Picardy Spaniels in France and there are now breeders in Canada and the Netherlands.
(Note: Since the Picardy and Blue Picardy have such similar hunting styles and abilities, the following information comes from bits of both chapters)
The usual pace is a medium gallop. While running, the head is normally held in line with the back but can be slightly higher or lower depending on the terrain. Range is close to medium but, like some of the other French breeds, the work standard allows for individuals of superior performance. I’ve seen one or two such dogs and they can range out fairly wide, at a fast gallop. Nevertheless, both breeds are still very Continental in action, typically ranging just beyond gun range at a medium, flowing gallop.
I spoke to former breed club president Joël Mailly about the Picardy Spaniel:
A Picardy hunts with you. They are very cooperative and will adapt to you and the terrain, ranging out or staying close, depending on what you want. If you are hunting in thick beet fields they will stay closer; if you are on open plains they will reach out. They adapt to the cover and will always hunt with you.
Blue Picardy breeder Bernard Piers adds that the Blue's search is:
"...similar to the Picardy Spaniel’s. But the Blue is more feline in its movements. It has a more setter-like way of working. We say that if the two Picardy breeds were horses, the Blue would be a demi-sang [half-blood] and the Picardy a draft horse. But there are two schools of thought regarding the breed. Hunters typically want a close-working dog, one that works “to the gun”, maybe 50 meters or so on each side. And field trialers want their dogs to run further out and faster. It comes down to selection and training.
Both breeds have a lot of point that is said to develop fairly early. Relatively feline in their movement when scenting game, they point standing up and can be quite “stylish” for a Continental breed.
They tend to point fairly early. Some are natural backers. You can see the Setter influence, but they don’t have as much of the feline movement in their actions and they don’t lay down on point. They point standing up, very intensely. They are not too difficult to break to wing and shot. (Bernard Piers)
Picardies have a reputation for being soft-mouthed, natural retrievers. The retrieving instinct is said to develop early in most pups. The somewhat stronger character of the breed may also make it a good candidate for higher levels of retriever training where a certain amount of pressure may be required.
Like all the French pointing breeds, Picardies are perfectly capable of tracking a wounded bird or rabbit. But, as with all the French pointing breeds, blood trailing and tracking of big game are not considered part of their job description. Nevertheless several Picardies have been tested in Germany for their tracking ability and have earned excellent scores.
As can be expected of a breed developed in a region renowned for its waterfowl hunting, the Picardy Spaniel is a born water worker. In fact, it may be the best bet among all the French pointing breeds in that regard. Joël Mailly said:
I can’t keep mine out of the water. Hunters in Picardy have always wanted dogs that love the water since they hunt a lot in the marshes. So we select our dogs to be good, strong swimmers and retrievers willing to work in very tough conditions. They are excellent dogs for waterfowlers.
Bernard Piers told me that Blues are "... very good water workers, equal to the Picardy in that respect."
The first Blue Picardies I ever saw were nowhere near France. They were in a snowy field in the foothills of the rocky mountains south of Calgary, Canada. They were owned by Don Fath, one of a very few breeders of blues outside the their native land. I was there to learn as much as i could about the breed and to photograph them in action. What I learned from Don that day was confirmed in France: good Blues from proven hunting lines are very birdy gundogs whose overall look, gait and pointing style definitely reveal an English connection. Blue Picardy Spaniels are bigger boned than field-bred English Setters and have a more rough-and-tumble look to them. They don’t run as fast or far as Setters and they seem to be a bit more laid-back.
In France, I have seen several Blues, mainly in field trials. Most of them ran hard and fast, head held high, out to about 100 meters or so. Their points were solid and, from what the owners told me, they were all good retrievers and strong swimmers. I believe that the breed overall still has a lot of hunt in it. But it is clear, even to the casual observer, that over the last two decades much of the growth in the Blue’s numbers has been among pet and show homes.
Some breeders I’ve spoken to have expressed their concern over this trend; they understand the danger this presents to any hunting breed. Others feel that it is the only way the breed can grow; otherwise it may disappear. Personally, I think the breed may indeed be approaching a tipping point. The Blue’s undeniable beauty and affectionate personality make them ideal house pets. But their heritage is the hunt. It would be a shame to see the breed’s keen instincts diminish or disappear.
Read more about the breed, and all the other pointing breeds from Continental Europe, in my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals