Several Spotlight editions ago our editor Keith issued a challenge, albeit tongue in cheek, about colour in Tortoiseshells hoping I’m sure to generate a response. Having had Torts on and off since the 1960’s and continuously for the last 30 years I thought I would give you my views.
My dictionary gives me the following definition:-
Tortoiseshell – (1) the horny yellow and brown mottled shell of the hawksbill turtle used for making ornaments, jewellery etc (2) a similar synthetic substance (3) a breed of domestic cat having black, cream and brownish markings (4) any of several butterflies having orange-brown wings with black markings (5) a yellowish-brown mottle colour.
The Victorians had a great love for tortoiseshell objects and it is easy to see why, when the English rabbit (and other breeds) was being developed an orange rabbit with shadings of a different colour on ears nose flanks and tail was called a tortoiseshell. What is impossible to define is what the precise colour tortoiseshell is.Looking back over the years to see what has been written on the subject by the scribes of the English fancy we find the following:-
Luke Shaw, National Secretary from 1899 to 1935 writing in 1919 in his book “The English Rabbit. It’s breeding and management” states: - “what is needed is a nice bright colour, with neat dark shadings – no smudgy, dirty appearance. The nose should be shaded, and so far as loins are concerned, they should get gradually darker as they reach the haunches. Ears, too, should have a touch of the shadings”. No mention of what the “nice bright” colour should be.
This definition is repeated verbatim by Ernest Hodgson in “The book of the English Rabbit” written at the start of the 1960’s.
Arnold Sanderson, National Secretary from 1940 – 1971 writing in the early 1970’s states: - “the colour of a good tortoiseshell should shade from orange to a dark-sepia-brown-cum-bluish shade carried well down to the skin. It should not be one colour throughout but each marking should shade and the tone generally should be as near as possible to its namesake tortoiseshell”.
Peter Prior, National Secretary from 1971 – 1976 writing in 1992 in his book “The English Rabbit” states, "Tortoiseshell – A rich, fiery orange top colour with blue tinged sepia shadings.”
What is clear from the above is that, unlike the four recognised colours, the tortoiseshell English is a shaded rabbit and not a single colour.I think that over the years as tortoiseshell breeders we have recognised that shadings are an integral part of the makeup of the adult rabbit whilst accepting that in order to successfully compete a tortoiseshell has got to have a bright, rich, orange top colour. These two elements can be conflicting and too much emphasis on shading will lead to a dark, dull adult rabbit, whereas an adult rabbit with no shadings is not tortoiseshell but orange, fawn or yellow.
With regard to trying to define the precise orange top colour, Fred Haslam says that the tort should be the colour of a Red and white (Dutch?) Cavy which is referred to by Gilbert Martin and Phil Shaw writing in the 1993 yearbook. The latter stating that his preferred colour is that of a blood orange. Peter Prior above calls for a rich fiery orange. And others have said that you should be able to “warm your hands” on a good coloured tort.
So where does this get the poor bewildered breeder of tortoiseshell English? Here are my thoughts:-
First and foremost, the tortoiseshell is a shaded rabbit and the adult rabbit must exhibit some degree of shading. Secondly, the top colour i.e.: Saddle and most of the spotting should be a rich, bright orange and importantly this colour should extend as far as possible down the hair shaft. Thirdly, any shading should be proportionate and tone in to the rest of the body – too dark butterfly or ears or both should be avoided. Fourthly, rabbits should maintain their colouring well into adulthood and to achieve maximum impact a good colour must be on a short coat of brilliant white. Finally 2014 has been a great year for torts with several B.I.S’s at area club shows and my good friend Ian winning the Gold Shield at Lanark and B.I.S. at the National Adult Stock Show.
I hope that 2015 proves to be equally successful and best of luck to all English breeders.