Graceful, intelligent and with incredible sporting instinct, the English setter is the perfect field companion in the age of sustainablility

‘Of all sporting dogs perhaps there are none more generally useful, beautiful and sagacious than the setter.’ So wrote Edward Laverack, who was instrumental in the development of the modern English setter, in 1872. ‘They are possessed of all the necessary requisites for general utility, viz, great speed, nose, staunchness, method of range, and finding, and, without any exception, one of the most enduring breed of setters I have ever come across.’

English setters have been involved with field trials and dog shows since their inception in the 19th century. “Around this time, the breed underwent considerable development and Edward Laverack created a breeding programme to fix the English setter into the type we see today,” says Ciara Farrell, library and collections manager at the Kennel Club.

The roots of English setters

Dom Goutorbe, champion trainer, field trial judge and president of the English Setter Club, confirms that the breed has changed little in this time. “English setters came from a Spanish setting spaniel. When you look at old paintings of early setters, the working dogs today still look that way.” He shares Laverack’s enthusiasm but with caveats. “If you get the training right, nothing beats a good English setter. Their grace and intelligence are something else. They are also the softest dogs; super with kids, they don’t moult and have no end of wonderful qualities. However, their sporting instinct is incredibly strong, so anyone considering one needs to think carefully,” he warns. “I’d equate it to buying a Mini only to discover a Ferrari engine under the bonnet. You just touch the accelerator and – whoosh – it’s off.” 

Will Town concurs that few gundogs can outshine a first-rate English setter. “I’d take a day’s shooting over them above any other sport. Being out on the moor, watching how they cover the ground and use their noses is very special,” he enthuses. “An English setter in full flight is an amazing sight. They are extremely graceful but highly strung and, goodness, they love to chase things. You need a dog that can go for hours and point but will then resist the temptation to run. It is a fine line, which makes you appreciate a really good one all the more.”

Two English setters in a meadow

“It sets the heart racing to walk behind them”

Town grew up with the breed as his mother was a huge figure in the English setter world and a former president of the English Setter Club. His sister, Fiona Kirk, is now Club secretary. “When we were little, somebody asked my brother and me where we went on holiday. We replied, ‘We don’t go on holidays, we go to field trials.’ It was a lovely way to grow up. The English setter community was, and still is, full of characters and a small and eclectic little niche in the gundog world,” she says. “

The way the dogs operate hasn’t changed for 100 years. They work into the wind and then quarter back. When they smell something, they will point and freeze, waiting until the gun is ready to shoot. It’s incredibly exciting,” insists Kirk, who was named after one of the English setters handled by her mother: Waygood Fiona. “It sets the heart racing to walk behind them. They are physically tough because they work over such hard terrain for long periods. Working dogs are markedly different from show strains of the breed, which are much heavier with a full coat that would be tangled up in heather within seconds if they were ever on a moor.” 

The stark differences between working English setters and show-bred dogs

Jon Kean, chairman of the Scottish Field Trials Association, confirms this. “Working and show English setters are like chalk and cheese,” he says. “I’m not aware of any dual champion, but I’ve witnessed some outstanding English setters in the 40 years I’ve been involved in trials. The Blue Maestro was a truly special dog, as were Blackstairs Geronimo and Lefanta Patsy, while one of the most recent top-winning dogs was Ballyellen Cara in 2016.”

Despite their sporting prowess, English setters are struggling in the UK. “Sadly, the big kennels of English setters – especially belonging to the vast sporting estates in the far north of Scotland for walked-up grouse shooting – no longer exist. The breed now appears on the Kennel Club’s list of vulnerable native breeds, with typically fewer than 300 registrations a year,” reveals Kean.

Working dogs have a large gene pool

Show English setters make up the largest portion of these but, according to Goutorbe, it is this group that faces the most problems. “Show dogs are the bigger group numerically but the gene pool is concerningly small,” he explains. “English setters are a popular working breed in other countries – with European nations having tens of thousands of registrations every year – so breeders of working dogs have a vast gene pool to explore. I bred a litter earlier this year with an inbreeding coefficient of 0%.”

One of these English-setter-loving nations is Norway. It rarely fails to feature in the country’s top five most popular dog breeds, while King Harald is a well-known English setter enthusiast and an honorary member of the Norwegian English Setter Club. Elisabeth Kallevig, who is passionate about English setters, puts much of their continued popularity down to the absence of driven shooting in her country.

English setters’ enduring appeal overseas

“Most bird hunting in Norway is over pointing dogs,” Kallevig explains. “About 80,000 Norwegians take out a licence to shoot small game yearly, of which 45,000 or so are to shoot willow grouse. Hunting capercaillie, blackcock and woodcock is also popular. For this, we need an extremely fit and athletic dog such as the English setter.” For all their toughness, even English setters need a little help dealing with the Norwegian winter.

An English setter in the Norwegian snow kitted out in a special suit to help keep it warm

English setters are very popular in Norway but they sometimes require special coats to help them deal with the cold conditions

“It is common for people to shoot on skis – and all our field trials are run this way – so often the dogs will wear a thin, stretchy suit similar to cross-country skiers,” says Kallevig. “It isn’t thick but is enough to stop the coat icing up, although male dogs sometimes have thicker layers around their testicles so the cold doesn’t impact fertility.” Another reason for the English setter’s enduring popularity in Norway is temperament. “For most people their dog is a pet for many more months of the year than a hunting dog, and English setters are very lovable with lots of personality,” she says. “It is sad to me that there are so few English setters in the UK itself.” 

Carving out a new role in a changing world

While driven shooting may have diminished the demand for English setters in the field in this country, they play an important support role elsewhere – not least in bird counts. “They have fantastic noses and, depending on the wind and moisture levels, can locate a bird up to 100 metres ahead of them,” says Dr David Baines, director of upland research at the GWCT. Grouse are particularly cryptic and well camouflaged; it would be impossible for us to find them without dogs. We use them not just with grouse but with other species, including blackgrouse and capercaillie.”

A more unusual and new role for the English setter is the Great Bustard Group’s restoration project. The newest recruit arrived in January this year and has just started training. Bromhead was bred by Dom Goutorbe and belongs to David Waters. Although there is a growing population of these gigantic flying birds in South Wiltshire, their biggest threat is from spring silage being cut.

You can search a much wider area with a specialist like an English setter

“Evolution hasn’t taught great bustards how to deal with a fast-moving mower, so it is really important we locate nests in spring silage fields,” explains Waters. “Teams of volunteers walk an area of more than 1,000 acres in May and June but we’ve learnt from experience that using dogs – such as my springer spaniel and labrador – is a real assistance. The noise of the panting and quartering seems to help flush the birds. With a dog, you can search a wider area than simply on foot, say a 50-metre zone. However, with a specialist like an English setter you’re talking a 600-metre zone,” he believes.

Bromhead has just started on basic ground rules but the future looks promising. “He really is the most rewarding puppy but it is true what people say about English setters being extremely sensitive,” says Waters. “I’ve never known a dog so sensitive to rebuke but, unlike a spaniel who might have a monk on for a few hours, Bromhead seems to learn the lesson and move on.  I looked into my choice of puppy carefully. The common-sense choice might have been a German pointer,” admits Waters. “However, my heart was with English setters, and I do think they have a nose that’s second to none. Plus, I love old things.  In the years to come, I truly hope Bromhead will help with the Great Bustard Group but that I’ll also be able to shoot over him with my old flintlock.” 

Hunting with hawks

Avian partnerships are not new to English setters. They have long been used by falconers including Doug Collins, who has flown falcons at red grouse on the same Scottish moor for nearly 30 seasons. “I love to see a good English setter running on the moor with pace and style, finding birds and producing them for the hawk,” he says. “Both the bird and dog seem to understand they are working together. Once you get a point, you release the falcon and the dog will often cock an eye as if to check on where the bird is.”

An English setter at full pace across the purple landscape of the moor

For Collins, who generally goes out for one flight a day, it doesn’t matter if he catches a grouse. “Seeing good dogwork and watching the falcon flying like a wild hawk is what it is about for me. It’s all about the quality of the flight and the experience.”

A sporting dog for the 21st century

With a renewed focus on sustainability, perhaps the English setter is not merely a sporting relic but very much a gundog for the 21st century? “Although shooting is in a challenging situation, I believe it is hard to find much fault with shooting over dogs. After all, that is the only kind of shooting there is in huge swathes of Scandinavia,” insists Goutorbe. “For me, shooting over setters is ‘back to basics’,” says Fiona Kirk. “It’s an intimate experience; you find yourself at the very centre of what is going on.” 

According to Will Town, it is also inclusive. “There’s lots of time walking and talking to the other handlers and guns. It’s extremely sociable. The slower pace allows you to take in everything: the surroundings, the company and the dogwork. And because we don’t train setters to pick up in this country, there will also be folks with labradors and spaniels. It gives lots of people the chance to be involved and work their dogs. “But what I think is especially important is that with a good dog, experienced handler and keeper, you can shoot just the older birds out of the covey,” says Town. “In that way, English setters help us to tread more lightly, which can only be a good thing for our sport.”

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