59 BIRD-DOGS -OLD AND NEW
BIRD-DOGS - OLD AND NEW
It was most unusual in Victorian books on dogs, gundogs especially, for any link to be made between our developing breeds of setter and pointer and those on mainland Europe. A concession was usually made over the origin of our Pointer, the most prolific authors without exception firmly linking this breed with Spain. Victorian writer Rawdon Lee accepted that the French had their own pointers before the Spanish Pointer was introduced into Britain at the beginning of the 18th century. He wrote that "Pointers far removed from the imported Spanish dog in appearance, were not at all uncommon in England and they could easily have been brought over from France."
Drury in his British Dogs of 1903 notes that the first record of the Pointer in Great Britain is the Tillemans' painting of the Duke of Kingston with his kennel of Pointers in 1725. He commented that the latter were the 'same elegant Franco-Italian type as the pointing dogs painted by Oudry and Desportes at the end of the 17th century.' Richardson, writing in 1847, describes seeing Italian Pointers in Scotland, only about a foot high, but remarkably staunch with superb noses. The French have long had two sizes in their national pointing breed, the smaller -the Braque Francais de petite taille -being just over 18" at the withers. Our native Pointer is expected to be over two feet high at the withers, with no smaller version.
Only two French HPRs, the Brittany and the Korthals Griffon, have so far made their mark outside France. Interest in the Braque du Bourbonnais here and in North America may be about to change that. After the Second World War only some 200 specimens of the breed existed, but now a well-planned resurgence is in place. An ancient breed from the very centre of France, its supporters claim that it has survived, without outcrosses, for nearly 500 years. Less hound-like than say the Italian Bracco it reminds me, despite its coat colour of both the Hertha Pointer of Denmark and the Portuguese Perdigueiro or partridge dog.
Less likely to be restored is the Russian Setter, described by a number of authors in the 19th century. Lang wrote in the 'Sporting Review' of 1839: "Then, for the first time for many years, I had my dogs, English setters, beaten hollow. His (i.e. those of his sporting host) breed was from pure Russian setters, crossed by an English setter dog which some years ago made a sensation in the sporting world from his extraordinary performances..." Not many sportsmen nowadays would dream of crossing two setter breeds, however good the blood, such is the dogma of pure-breeding. In his book on the setter of 1872, the great breeder Edward Laverack remarks that he had only ever seen one pure specimen of Russian Setter, owned by Lord Grantley in Perthshire.
Away from the working stock, far too many of our native bird dogs are criticized for being too slab-sided, too weak in the hindquarters and all too often have upright shoulders and short upper arms. Of course, any and every breed receives criticism and this is hardly new. A correspondent to the Kennel Gazette of February 1890 wrote: “I have read Mr Serjeantson’s remarks on Irish Red Setters in your number for this month, and probably he may be pleased to learn that very many of the most experienced breeders in Ireland fully endorse his opinions, that latterly breeders of the Irish Red Setter for show purposes have sacrificed the grand old powerful big-boned animal for the sake of beauty, chiefly in colour, coat, and feathering, and have thereby produced the many present-day weedy successors of the old type- no doubt beautiful, but weedy in bone.”
No doubt the died-in-the-wool gundog men will say, with a sigh, let the two worlds, show and working, get on and do their own thing. But what does that do to the breed? We are losing breed type in many working gundog strains and sound construction in many show strains. That cannot be good for the long-term future of any breed; should the two worlds always be totally apart? In some hound breeds the show people involve those who work their dogs, in Otterhounds, Beagles and Bassets, for example. Some sighthound breeds are tested on the racing track, but I doubt if such a sure test of sound construction is a factor in most show dog breeding programmes.
‘A field dog, for taking birds’ was the caption for an illustration in Dr Caius’s well known treatise of 1576 entitled 'Of English Dogs', which resembled a prototypal setter. Caius described the action of the Setter or Index with these words: "When he hath found the bird, he keepeth sure and fast silence, he stayeth his steps and will proceed no further; and with a close, covert, watching eye, layeth his belly to the ground, and so creepeth forward like a worm." Half a millennium later, we still seek a comparable performance from our setters. They are remarkable dogs which have survived every challenge so far; we must do our very best to perpetuate them.