By David Leafe
As the July sun sets over a Shropshire smallholding, sheep graze quietly in the fields, horses doze contentedly in their stables, and hawks circle majestically in the skies above.
This rural scene is like something out of a painting by Turner or Constable, but suddenly it erupts into chaos more reminiscent of the Keystone Kops.
Around the corner of a barn appear 16 frisky dalmatian puppies, tumbling and scampering in every direction as they are pursued by their owner, 21-year-old Becky Elvins.
Ruff and tumble: Milly with her litter of 16 pups - so many the kennel club told her owners they wanted a vet's confirmation they were all born to the same mother
As quickly as she can scoop them up and place them in their large wicker basket, they spill out again, darting between her legs, nipping at her wellingtons and endlessly disappearing and reappearing in a polka-dot whirl. I feel exhausted just watching the bedtime bedlam which has been part of Becky's routine for the past seven weeks.
As a trainee teacher, she spends her day handling classes of primary school children — but that's nothing compared to looking after this brood, born to her much-loved dalmatian Milly at the end of May.
So numerous are Milly's litter that the Kennel Club demanded a letter from the Elvins' vet confirming they were all from the same litter, as the average number of pups born to dalmatians is eight. And Milly herself was one of a litter of 16.
As one of the puppies hurdles past my left shoe in a dash for freedom, Becky says: 'I don't know the odds against a coincidence like that but this lot certainly came as a bit of a surprise.'
I gently replace the squirming escapee in the basket. 'That's Tilly! She's one of the naughtiest. You can recognise her because she has two black ears. She loves to run away and hide behind the greenhouse.'
To me, these doggy doppelgangers are impossible to tell apart but Becky's love and knowledge of the breed goes back to her childhood, when she was captivated by the Disney cartoon 101 Dalmatians.
At 15, she decided she wanted her own dog to join the family labrador and the two Jack Russells owned by her sisters Lucy and Sarah.
She saved up £500 by waitressing at a hotel, and when she saw newspaper reports about the birth of Milly and her 15 siblings in a nearby village, she begged her mother to let her visit them.
'Mum said we could go just to have a look — but of course I fell in love with Milly the minute I saw her,' she says.
The feeling was reciprocated. Originally bred to run alongside horse-drawn carriages, dalmatians are well-known for their loyalty. Whenever Becky rode her pony, Casper, Milly followed faithfully behind.
She has since learnt to recognise the sound of Becky's car as she bumps along the long country lane leading to their house, near the market town of Church Stretton.
'As soon as I pull into the drive, she's there, trotting along beside the rear left-hand wheel,' says Becky.
Two years ago, it was time for Milly to become a mother and Becky set about the business of canine love-matching via the internet. This eventually led her to Coventry, the home of a spotty suitor named Dexter.
'He had a really good pedigree with loads of champions in his blood-line,' explains Becky.
The first litter resulted in 11 pups, but nothing prepared the family for the fruits of Dexter's return visit earlier this year.
'We took Milly to the vet for a scan and he could see only four pups,' says Becky. 'Milly was much bigger than she had been before so I thought there must be more, but I had no idea she was carrying that many.'
When Milly had failed to go into labour two days after her due date, the vet decided to perform a caesarean, watched by Becky and her mum Lisa, who runs an antiques business with her husband Terry.
'He started lifting the puppies out and eventually got to eight,' says Becky. 'We thought that was it but then he said: “I'll start on the other half now.” We couldn't believe it.
'The vet and his nurse aren't used to having that many puppies to deal with in one go, so Mum and me took a batch each, and rubbed them with towels to help get their circulation going.
'It wasn't long before they were running all over the place, tipping over boxes of cotton wool and almost sliding off the table on to the floor. They have been a handful ever since.'
Lots of spots: The dalmatian puppies jostle for space in their basket. The unusually large litter had to be born by caesarean section
Back home, the family made space for Milly and the puppies in their conservatory, with Becky sleeping on the sofa beside their basket, unwilling to leave them for even a minute.
Her anxiety was understandable. The first few weeks of life are a particularly dangerous time for puppies from such a large litter. Born pure white, and with their eyes closed until they are about a fortnight old, their competition for Milly's milk meant that the family had to ensure they fed in shifts.
'We'd let eight feed while eight stayed in the basket,' explains Lisa. 'Then we'd swap them over. Otherwise, the greedier ones would have taken all the milk.
'As it was, we noticed one or two of them looking a bit weak at times so we tried to feed them with formula from baby bottles. That didn't really work because they didn't like the rubber teats, but they all managed to pull through anyway.
'That surprised the vet, who thought we might lose one or two along the way.' With her milk eventually drying up, the puppies were weaned off an exhausted Milly. The Elvins family now have their work cut out grinding down food pellets and mixing them with warm water to form what looks like a doggy version of Weetabix. This is given to them four times a day — with predictable pandemonium every time.
'We put out four feeding bowls with four puppies at each one so they will get a fair share,' says Becky. 'Some hope! It usually ends up with them all feeding out of each other's bowls and grabbing whatever they can.'
Playpen: The tiny pups play in a pen made from bales of hay
At a month old, the pups had already developed individual markings and personalities, which have become even more pronounced since.
The quietest is Prince, notable for having the fewest spots, unlike his brother Bertie, who has the most. Then there is Snoopy, with two dark smudges under his eyes, and Lexi, who has three large splodges on her face.
Most distinctive is the largest, Butch. Unlike the rest, who all have black spots, his are brown and he is particularly boisterous.
It was Butch who was gang-leader when it came to teasing the family cat, Dalboy. 'The puppies loved to chase him at first but Dalboy started lashing out at them,' says Lisa. 'They soon learned their lesson and now they keep well away.'
Such petty jealousies aside, there is no shortage of puppy love as far as the humans in the family are concerned.
Bundles of joy: At two weeks old the litter began to show their spots
As soon as she gets home from school, 11-year-old Sarah runs to the rectangle of straw bales which form the puppies' play-pen during the day and lets them out on to the lawn. 'She is out there every night, playing with them until bedtime,' says elder sister Becky, whose room is filled with dalmatian-themed ornaments and stuffed toys.
For her 21st birthday party, she had a white cake covered with black spots and topped, naturally, with a plastic dalmatian.
This, of course, is no substitute for the real thing — and Becky will keep one of the newborns, Maisie, to live alongside Milly.
'This will be the last time Milly breeds,' she says. 'We think she has had enough with two such big litters.'
Shift work: The pups had to be fed in turn, to make sure that all of them received enough milk to survive
The rest of the puppies have been put up for sale. The four bitches command more for their breeding potential and have already been sold for £600 each. The dogs cost less, at £550 each, but Butch (or Charlie, as his new owner has named him) has been sold, with the rest likely to go soon.
The Elvins family are understandably concerned that none of the puppies should end up at the real-life equivalent of Hell Hall, the fur factory presided over by Cruella de Vil in 101 Dalmatians.
Each prospective owner is checked to ensure they can offer a loving home and understand the implications of taking on a dalmatian (the Kennel Club advises that the breed needs at least two hours exercise a day and is best suited to large houses and gardens).
When the puppies are ready to be taken away next week, there will no doubt be tears for Becky and her family. 'The first one to go and the last are usually the most emotional,' says Becky. 'But you know they are going to the next stage in their lives and that they will be loved.'
Each departing puppy will be accompanied by a blanket rubbed over with the scent of the rest of the litter to give them a comforting scent in their new home. And their new owners will receive a CD containing photos of them from their day of birth onwards, and will be asked to keep the Elvins family updated on their progress.
As for Milly — and all the family — they will be having a very well-earned rest. 'When you watch the Disney cartoon, you have to wonder if anyone could ever cope with that many dogs in real life,' says Lisa.
'We've loved having the puppies, but it's been hard enough looking after 16 of them — let alone 101!'