Pam in Chester Zoo
Pam in Chester Zoo
John in Chester Zoo
Erindale Phelan
Ballyphelan Celtic Charm
Ballyphelan Tiger Lily
Ballyphelan Tiger Lily litter
Tarlach Dubh 13 months
Tarlach Dubh 10,5 years
Three Ballyphelan Champions
Ballyphelan Laura Bea
Ballyphelan Little Bear
Living a Dream  
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The Ballyphelan Story

written by Debbie Tebbutt for the Irish Wolfhound Society 2004


John and Pam Sumner have been showing Irish wolfhounds for 38 years and breeding for thirty. They first met 1962 in rather unusual circumstances - at Chester Zoo. Pam was a trainee keeper in the bear section. What better way to get to know a job than having someone more experienced show you how? Pam went one better she had him do some of the jobs for her and their partnership of fourty years began.

The experience of such specialised animal husbandry stood them in good stead. They sometimes had to hand rear stock from a day old. Lynx, Jackals and Chimpanzee young came under their care and John even successfully fed a baby Caracal Lynx - known to be quite wild - on the mix of SMA milk, egg whites and vitamins. Zoo life was eventful especially catching up with the old giant primate running amok in the Cheshire countryside or treating a large cat.

Both of them had family dogs before they met. As a child Pam would attach herself to dogs in the street and later had mongrels from the litter down the road. John´s first dog was a husky who was a character but a real handful so he wanted a dog with an easier temperament. It was all theoretical but he definately wanted a large dog. One of the vets at the zoo brought him in a photo of a wolfhound. "It looked like a European Brown Bear" John remembers but he read up on the breed and together they decided to try and get one.

In 1966 John wrote Sheila Seale of Ballykelly Kennels who directed them to Mrs. Leatt (Samando) who had a litter by Montebello Prince of Boroughbury out of Samando Petronella. They bought a male for 40 guineas - rather a lot for a courting couple in those days. He was called Pluto and turned out to be cryptorchid. Though he went to limited shows as a puppy, the testicles never appeared but he was a great companion and almost 10 when he died.

In 1969 John and Pam married. They conitinued to take an interest in the breed but their lives were inevitably filled with work and rearing a young family of their own with the occasional visit to the ringside.

So what hounds had appealed to them in the 60s? Both loved Sulhamstead Match; John used to look at him in the Club Year book and say "I´ll have one like that!" Clindhu of Eaglescrag was another who impressed for his great size and presence. Both agreed that the best wolfhound they ever saw was also from the 60s:Sulhmstead Morna of Eaglescrag. It´s easy to see how early exposure to this hound influenced their image of the standard. She was a rangy bitch with a lovely head, neat ears, a long proud neck, flowing topline and well angulated hidquaters.

During the 70s they also followed resuls in the canine press and found that they liked the look of Marjorie Saunders´Erindale kennel. In 1976, having approached her for a puppy, they were invited down to Folkestone, shown the litter (Erindale Adam by Ch Erindale Bernice) and told to pick the one they wanted. They chose a big cream puppy who appealed to them both because of his glamour and balance. They started showing him at Open shows with immediate success though his first appearance in the showring was marked by a bout of loose bowels on his first run round; it didn´t stop him winning best puppy and best of breed.

A lesson in persistence winning over embarrassment here and one with which we can all have empathy. Casey (Erindale Phelan) was one of those rare things - an Irish wolfhound mals who looked good at 11 months, kept his form for life and was also "a joy to show". Between 1979 and 1980 he won six CCs culminating in BIS at Border Union Championship show from judge Bill Siggers. This remains the Sumners´ most pleasing win.

John admits that it was not always easy to get information and advice in those days which must have been hard for anyone making a start in the breed. However, when approached in the right manner, people like Miss Hudson and Mrs Nagle could be encouraging. However that early diffidence on the part of others lead John to vow that he would always be prepared to chat and discuss the breed with younger exhibitors if he ever found them in a similar position one day.

The first breeding attempt was Erindale Phase, acquired in 1977, to Lindfreys Barney Beau and having bred leopards and pumas, they expected a litter of wolfhounds like peas in a pod. They were not. So what was learnt from that first litter? "Not to repeat it" said Pam "and also that it is not as easy as you think it will be. Above all to learn from your mistakes". John´s view was to follow Tom Horner´s precept to "oly breed from the best bitch possible". The next move was to find a really good bitch.

When Casey died, Maggie Brooks, a lifelong friend, offered them pick bitch from Erindale Harmony Queen´s litter by Eaglescrag Lysander. John recalled visiting the litter at 10 weeks and how, after Maggie opened the door to the kennel, he stood with his mouth open gazing at this beautyful bitch puppy. Brookesbourne Carina was held in partnership and John´s premonition about her quality was to hold true. She became the foundation of the Ballyphelan line and a touchstone for quality at the kennel.

Carina was a lovely bitch but also a very frustrating one. Confident and happy at home, she took no interest in being shown and made her feelings obvious by often refusing to move the ring. Standing she was an impressive and beautyfully balanced bitch who should have gained her title but thankfully made her mark as a dam. She was first mated to Erindale Callan of Finloren, from whom they kept a male Brookesbourne Rameses and latterly to Westmount Xile of Mochras but it was the mating to Ch. Hydebeck Reginald Snuffson in 1987 that produced the most significant litter including Celtic Charm and Celtic Legend. Charm provided the Sumners with both their next exitement and frustration. Charm had won five reserve CCs and two CCs before tail damage ended her show career. Ironically, Legend had damaged his cruciate ligaments as a puppy too. Despite all this the next generation proved the importance of that essential quality in breeding wolfhounds, determination. In 1990 Celtic Charm was mated to Ch. Caredig Yankeedoodle and produced two bitches. Cascade went on to be both a champion and Irish champion and won the Graham Shield at the Club Championship show in 1994 when she was also top IW hound in UK.

In 1991 Celtic Charm was put to Ainsea Rifleman and produced two more champions for Pam and John in Ballyphelan Tarlach Dubh and Tiger Lily. THese were prodigious winners and known for their elegance, style and exceptional ground covering movement. Pam believes that Lily is the best hound they have ever bred because of her great conformation, movement and all-round quality. She won 4 CCs in 1994 and shared the double at Driffield with her brother. Tarlach won best in show at the Club Open show in 1992 aged just 13 months and 5 CCs spanning 2 years. He made many appearences as a veteran, still showing the grace and houndy qualities that were with him in youth and attracted successful stud work to him from many notable kennels.

Lily went on to breed a remarkable litter in 1993. Put to Ch and Ir Ch Bokra George Caredig she produced four champions in the same litter. Champions Ballyphelan Bran Beag, Bryn Beran, Brown Brogue and Bara Brith. Bran Beag was top IW in UK winning an outstanding 37CCs and 28 RCCs and Best in Show at Windsor in 1998 for his owner Jean Malley. All four siblings have bred on to produce outstanding stock of their own.

In 1995 Tiger Lily was bred to Bleddyn Blewog o Caredig and produced two notable daughters, Laura Bea with 1 CC and 3 RCC, and Loganberry winning 6 RCCs. Two years later Sakaza Sabia came into the kennel instead of a stud fee and she was later mated to Ch. Uella Flint. Three puppies were kept - Branwen, Bronty (lovely but who hates howing despite winning best puppy at Crufts) and their brother Bravo. Branwen and Bravo were shown, both sisters were bred to Clonmagara Kyras Caredig. The youngsters look promising and John thinks that one of them Ballyphelan Liquorice is potentially as good as their old favourite Lily. Liquorice had had many successes though sparingly shown and won 2RCCs both from junior in 2002 and Mooncloud and Painted Lady are amassing the first prizes too. The male they kept Red Admiral won Best Special Yearling at this year´s Society Ch. Show.

There are plenty hounds to show at Ballyphelan and in reply to the question how did they decide which hound to take out to a particular judge, John replied "Experience has proved to us over the years that you cannot match the hound to the judge. You simply have to enter under all judges whom you feel will do their own thing whether you like it or not. Some judges go for certain sorts but a really striking hound will go down well with most. You tend nowadays to trot out the ones that are doing well for a while. Mind you, I took Bravo out to Blackpool last year hoping that he could get a 3rd and Crufts qualification and he came away with Best of Breed."

As far as the health of the breed is concerned both Pam and John think that there is always some new cause for worry which hits the headlines. They feel that their stock is reasonably healthy and try to steer clear od avoidable problems like PRA. However both lament the fact that the breed in general is not as long-lived as it used to be. On the other side, information is more accessible than it was in the 70s when they were starting out and breeders talk more about what´s going on.

So what is their secret of choosing the right puppy when there is a litter of 8 or so in the nest? For both of them is the "Wow factor - the puppy just smacks you in the eye. It has ring presence from the start." Pam describes the movement that she looks for as a "slink": that light, reachy and accurate foot placement which has distinguished the Ballyphelan hounds over the years. "You´ve also got to like them as charakters, build up a really good relationship with them to achieve the successful partnership that showing is all about."

Pam and John have been living in north Wales for 12 years and a visit to their mountainside home offers the visitor the wonderful sight of a group of strong, fit and energetic hounds, running in a beautiful landscape. Though the Sumners have been involved with the breed over 4 decades, their enthusiasm has not waned. The ambition is still there too. They would like another big stage winner, BOB at Crufts would be good ...!