by   David Hancock

The late 19th century, in both Britain and France, the two leading sporting nations in Europe at that time, saw the stylish gundogs employed to indicate unseen game providing great glamour to the sporting field, and then, in turn, to the show ring. Famous artists portrayed the setters and pointers, those of Britain especially, ahead of most other sporting breeds. At the big London and Paris dog shows the English Setter and the Pointer were exhibited in relatively huge numbers, as the London Illustrated News and French magazines of the time demonstrate. Just before the grouse season, the London railway stations featured scores of setting dogs being loaded for onward travel northwards. In every depiction, the sheer style and innate glamour surrounding such breeds was self-evident. We retain these breeds but not the glamour surrounding them. In any sporting breed however function not only shapes form but must always have a higher priority than mere physical beauty.

Edward Laverack, the great setter breeder, in his book on the setter of 1872, wrote: "The first thing to be attended to in breeding is to consider what object the animal is intended for...One of the first objects to obtain, if possible, is perfection of form, as best adapted for speed, nose, and endurance. The next, and which I consider paramount, or of as much importance as physical form, is an innate disposition to hunt, and point naturally in search of game, and without which innate properties mere beauty of colour and perfection of external form (however desirable) are but secondary considerations to practical sportsmen, and simply valueless." That is a very clear statement from a master-breeder and one dangerous to overlook.

Setters were designed for work, that is why they were handed down to us in the form they were. Setters which are not capable of working, physically and mentally, represent a betrayal of everything the pioneer breeders devoted their lives to. It does not matter if they are only pets; to be the genuine article they must have an anatomy which could carry out setter work. Pretty, showy, flamboyant setters floating round the ring and then earning the admiration of the judge are unworthy of their own heritage. And if we breed them without heeding the great founder-breeder's words, and his crystal clear message about valueless dogs, we will in time put at risk a simply splendid type of dog and an important part of our sporting dog inheritance.

Writing in his 'Champion Dogs of the World'  of 1967, Sir Richard Glyn wrote:  "If one had to pick a dog, not a foxhound, as typical of English country life and the English country gentleman who lived it in the nineteenth century, then that dog would be the English Setter." And those words straightaway provide the frame for any word picture being painted of the setters. They were the shooting companions of those with land or access to it and a life of ease, often dominated by country sports. James the First addressed the landed gentry of his time with these words: "Gentlemen, at London you are like ships at sea, which show like nothing; but in your country villages you are like ships in a river which look like great things." The passion of such men for country sports not only shaped the English countryside but gave us our hounds, gundogs and terriers. In the time of the Stewarts, the setting dog was used to hold game birds to ground, often with a hawk overhead to keep the birds from flying, while a net was carefully drawn over them. Then with the introduction of firearms and later 'shooting flying', setters were needed, along with pointers, to indicate and then put up feathered game. But heritage should establish provenance and act as a guide for future fanciers.

In pursuit of this function, the setting and pointing breeds of dog developed both here and on the continent and were widely traded, with a high value on a trained and effective dog. Whilst our setter breeds were evolving here so too were the 'epagneul' breeds on mainland Europe. It is foolish for setter breed historians to claim a long and pure lineage for their favoured breed. Good setters were mated to other good setters irrespective of colour. The landed gentry went on their Grand Tours, sometimes taking their dogs with them through Europe and sometimes coming back with a dog which had impressed them. It was easier to bring foreign dogs into Britain in every previous century than the twentieth. Worship of the pedigree has meant that seeking the best dog for a particular sporting role is relegated by the blind pursuit of pure-breeding. And, in our setting and pointing breeds, show ring glamour has replaced sporting style. Over-furnished setters and skinny Pointers get rewarded by show judges; a century ago they would not have been even taken to a grouse moor. We have sadly lost the glamour of their sporting world without gaining a more workable dog. Before this valuable instinct is lost forever we need to look hard at our 'indicators of game' and preserve their remarkable working skills.