148 BREEDING A BETTER BIRD-DOG
BREEDING A BETTER BIRD-DOG - the clash between show ring and field
"When he perceives game,
Those words, written as long ago as 1569 in German, show not just how the bird-dogs operate but how ancient their skill is. Dr Caius's well known treatise of 1576, entitled 'Of English Dogs', was accompanied by an illustration of 'a field dog, for taking birds', 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.
William Arkwright in his book on the Pointer quotes from a most interesting letter from the US vice consul in Valencia in 1900: "In this part of Spain there are no pure-bred sporting native dogs of any kind. The famous breed that existed here for three centuries - the Gorgas...are now extinct or so crossed with inferior breeds as to be indistinguishable. They were very nearly pure white, and much lighter than the old cylindrical Navarrese dog. Tradition says they were of foreign origin, the first pair being presented by an Italian prince..."
The French have a wide range of braques or pointing breeds: the Braque d'Auvergne, the Braque Saint-Germain, the Braque de l'Ariege, the Braque du Bourbonnais, the Braque Dupuy - with few specimens remaining - as well as the Braque Francais in two sizes. They also have a good span of what we would call setters - their epagneul breeds: Breton, Francais, Picard, Pont-Audemer and Bleu de Picard. Despite this, many French sportsmen use our breeds. Now that our sportsmen have got used to the concept of all-round gundogs or hunt, point and retrieve dogs, the French breeds might in time have the appeal of the German breeds. The Brittany is well established here and the Braque du Bourbonnais already introduced.
One of the sadnesses in gundogs lies in the loss of old breeds, either through a lack of recognition or simply indifference to their fate. The English Water Spaniel once featured in the Kennel Club Stud Book, but is now lost to us. A number of distinct forms of setter were never perpetuated. The milk-white, curly-coated Llanidloes Setter would have provided a most distinctive element in our list of native setter breeds, had it survived. 'Stonehenge', writing at the end of the 19th century, described them as Welsh Setters, stating that their coats "would resist the wet and cold of the mountains in a marvellous manner." Is there not some proud Welsh patriot-sportsman out there who would be willing to re-create this lost breed? We have English, Irish and Gordon Setters from Scotland, where is the Welsh representative?
Laverack mentions another old Welsh strain of setter, similar to the Llanidloes, but jet-black, stating that: "In their own country they cannot be beaten, being exactly what is required for the steep hill-sides." He also mentions the liver and white setters favoured in Cumberland and Northumberland, and the jet-black breed kept by the Earl of Tankerville. Interestingly, Laverack writes that the Duke of Gordon preferred black, white and tans in his setters, but kept black and tans too. You would not guess what the Duke's preference was from glancing at today's show rings for Gordon Setters. The breed standard of this breed states: Very small white spot on chest permissible. No other colour permissible. A few years back the best grouse dog in the country was a mainly white Gordon Setter.
So what are the pure-bred native setter breeds like now that gene pools have been closed and coat colours become fixed beyond reason? Here are some extracts from show critiques in recent years. English Setters: "One worrying observation is poor forehands with upright shoulders and short straight upper arms were too much the order of the day." "I thought the general quality to be disappointing...On the day there were too many short or poorly angled upper arms...Where did the short-legged long-bodied English Setters come from?" and a third one: "I was disappointed to find too many upright shoulders and too few exhibits demonstrating good driving action."
Here are extracts from three critiques on Gordons: "Movement on the whole was disappointing and I believe there are two main reasons for this. First and most important, incorrect angulation of either/or both fore and hind quarters..." "My main area for concern is shoulders, upright shoulders and short upper arms make an animal look square at the front, many, when viewed from above had coarse lumpy shoulder blades..." and, thirdly: "Certainly I was disappointed by the number of poor hindquarters, with some dogs looking really cow-hocked and with very poor and weak hindquarters." All of these critiques make sad reading in breeds designed to be functional animals with a testing sporting role. How can any dog claim to belong to a breed if it is simply incapable of carrying out the function for which the breed was intended for?
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."
For me the survival of the Boulet griffon and the survival of a sound setter or pointer breed are equally important. We have inherited these splendid dogs from devoted pioneer breeders who dedicated their whole lives to the production of functional animals. It may be naive to expect the divisions between the show and the working worlds to become blurred, for the benefit of the breed concerned. But it is entirely reasonable to expect show fanciers to go and watch their breed at work and then understand what the drafters of the original breed standard had in mind. It is easy to exploit a breed in the field or in the ring but to what gain for the breed?