ASHTON WATERFOWL

The Indian Runner Duck: A Historical Guide
by C. & M. Ashton

Hardback book, stitched, printed on good quality coated paper; 202 pages. Over 100 black&white illustrations and photographs. Eight page colour section. A collection of documents and information going back to the 1830s, some not previously available in print.

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Few ducks have ever had such an impact on the domestic waterfowl scene in Great Britain as the Indian Runners, or Penguin Ducks, as they were sometimes called in the early days. Groups of enthusiasts almost came to blows on where they came from and what they should look like. For nearly a century bitter rivalries existed between groups of fanciers, each positive that it knew all the answers, and each positive it was right exclusively. Between 1900 and 1930 the poultry press contained letters of growing bitterness and often quite inane stubbornness. The pages were littered with letters and articles from experts like Matthew Smith, Joseph Walton, J. Donald, E. A. Taylor, Reginald Appleyard. It is hard a century later to wonder what all the fuss was about.

When they appeared on the scene, Indian Runners had three sets of characteristics that marked them as unique, and each of these contributed to the subsequent conflicts within the Fancy:
1. Runners had what was seen as a “peculiar” shape and carriage;
2. they had plumage colours and markings that included very unusual mutations;
3. they had very highly developed egg-laying capabilities.

At some time or other between 1840 and 1940, different groups of fanciers would seek to capitalize on one of the sets of characteristics, largely at the expense of the others. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the most popular version of the Indian Runner in England was the one from the Cumberland importations. It was fawn (or grey) and white, laid plenty of eggs but had on numerous occasions been crossed with native British domestic ducks. This was the version that found its way into the 1901 Standards and was believed by many to be from India itself. At this time another version was promoted by those who believed the pure, upright Runner from Malaya was the genuine article. The focus was on head shape, carriage and slim bodies, irrespective of colour. Then before the end of the First World War, a third version of the Runner was promoted. It was defined almost purely by its egg-laying. The shape and colour were very much minor considerations.

This volume, The Indian Runner Duck: a Historical Guide, has been the product of many hours, days and years of interesting research, the beginnings of which emerged when preparing The Domestic Duck for publication. There have been few areas of duck history fraught will such bitter rivalries, petty-mindedness, heroic stubbornness and genuine enthusiasm as this one. Looking back over one and a half centuries it is amazing how human beings can find so much to argue about. What this dissent provided, however, was a number of real benefits, not least a documentation of the arguments themselves. More profitable though was the creation of the original Indian Runner Duck Club, the gradual (and contentious) composition of a Standard of Excellence for the breed, and a series of pamphlets and books documenting the history of Indian Runner duck-keeping in Great Britain and beyond.

From the brief observations of naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace developed the more fancier-focussed documents of J. Donald and Jacob Thomlinson. Donald’s little pamphlet of c. 1890 was to lay down the basic traditions of Indian Runner duck lore that stretches to this day, the apocryphal story of the Cumbrian sea captain who gave Fawn-and-whites to his native farmers of Cumberland and the original Fawn Runners to the natives “over the border” in Dumfriesshire. Persistent bickerings about the exact nature of the original imports led to two schools of thought, the purists who wanted what they believed were the true “type” and the utililarians who favoured the birds that they remembered from their youth, the birds that might indeed be mongrels but which were better layers, they believed, than the upright exhibition birds. From this particular dispute emerged one of the best and rarest pieces of writing, the book by Dr. J. A. Coutts, The Indian Runner Duck: its origin, history, breeding, and management (1927, Feathered World). Reginald Appleyard’s own split loyalties to utility and exhibition Runners produced a string of informative articles as well as his own book, Ducks: breeding, rearing and management (Poultry World). What we have tried to do in this volume is give extracts of some of these works so that the modern reader can sample the ideas and writings of these authorities, and witness some of the contention that filled many pages of the poultry press.

The disputes had additional benefits. They drove the antagonists “back to basics”. Miss T. Wilson-Wilson and Henry Digby sent to India for genuine specimens. What they ended up with, and showed in 1898, “were not the true Runner or anything like it. The offspring were domed in the skull and very much dished in the bill,” according to Coutts. He, of course, was on the side of Matthew Smith, who had failed to find anything in India. Joseph Walton, on the other hand, went slightly further afield. By 1909 he had managed to bring into the country a few genuine-looking Runners from the Indonesian islands. These birds were better than those of Digby, and so much better than most of the existing Indian Runners in Britain, Australia and America, that the new bloodlines were both welcome and unwelcome to the Runner Fancy. Later importations by the Misses Chisholm and Davidson brought further fresh blood from Lombok and Java, and did even more to justify the recognition of the modern “type” of Indian Runner.