To watch a setter quartering the grouse moor is pure poetry. But now, competition on the Continent is requiring them to retrieve too, says David Tomlinson

Setters are one of our oldest sporting gundog breeds and to shoot over them is widely regarded as the greatest sport in these islands. But now, competition on the Continent is requiring them to retrieve too. They’ve always been considered the grouse moor specialists, says David Tomlinson, but there’s no reason their grace and talent shouldn’t be seen more widely.

Breaking into shooting is especially difficult if you have an HPR, but old assumptions that they are noisy and hard-mouthed are dying out. David Tomlinson advises on how to take an HPR shooting.


Watching a quartering setter seemingly floating across a purple moor is pure poetry. It all looks so easy, so effortless, yet that dog is galloping on ground where we humans find it difficult to walk. What is even more remarkable is that at full gallop the dog is still able to scent a grouse. It will go from flat-out to point in less time that it takes you to read this. It’s no wonder that many regard shooting over these dogs as the best sport available in these islands.

Along with the (English) pointer, the setters are the oldest of our sporting gundog breeds and have been around for several hundred years. They evolved long before the shotgun, their job being to hold – set – rather than flush game, so that the sportsmen could net the crouching birds. Over the decades different blood was introduced to improve their performance – foxhound for endurance and pace, even greyhound for speed – but they remained recognisably setter.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the breeds we know today were established and refined. Until then different kennels favoured different colours or even types of dogs, but it was due to the efforts of breeders such as Edward Laverack, Richard Purcell Llewellin and William Humphrey that the Irish setter, red and white setter, Gordon setter and English setter were finally established.

Llewellin died in 1925, but it is a mark of his achievement that today, nearly a century later, there are many who believe his strain of setter makes a fifth breed. Whether it does or not is a matter for the purists, but from a practical point there’s nothing to choose between how any of these setters work. All compete against each other in trials on equal terms, and though experts may tell you that because the Gordon is heavier it’s slower than its Irish and English cousins, that’s not necessarily the case.

Traditionally, Gordon setters are black and tan, Irish setters red, English setters white ticked or marked with black, lemon, liver or orange, and red and white setters just as their name suggests. However, such is their mixed ancestry that throwbacks are not unusual, with all-red Gordon setters the most frequent. Some years ago I met a pure-bred working pointer that was long-haired, and if I hadn’t been told I would have assumed it was an English setter as that’s exactly what it looked like. It was a reminder that pointers come from the same stock as setters.


Shooting over setters is just that, and not to be confused with walked-up shooting with spaniels and retrievers. The sportsman or woman walks with an unloaded gun: cartridges are only slipped into the breech when the dog is on point. When the setter is holding a firm point the gun is taken forward by the dog’s handler who, when the gun is ready, will instruct the dog to flush the bird or birds.

Setters are classic hunter-pointers, as opposed to the continental hunter-pointer-retrievers, as traditionally they have rarely been asked to retrieve. Quartering a moor is hard work, even though it may not look like it, so it has always been the tradition that once a bird had been found, pointed and shot, a spaniel or retriever should be sent to pick it up. This had the added bonus of the setter being unlikely to run in to retrieve. A setter that runs in is vulnerable to being shot if the shooter fires his or her second barrel. Most handlers will tell you of dogs they have had that liked to retrieve, but it’s never been a practice that has been encouraged.

Now, however, attitudes are changing and an increasing number of handlers are training their setters to pick up. The catalyst for change has been British dogs and handlers entering the World Championship for Pointing Breeds, where all competing dogs are expected to hunt, point and retrieve. The Championship is divided into several different competitions, and there is one exclusively for British breeds. Ironically, this has never been won by a British handler, though last year, in Spain, Britain’s Sara Chichester was placed fourth overall individually.

Setters in general and English setters in particular are popular on the Continent, and in several countries, from Norway to Greece, the English setter is by far the most numerous hunting dog. The word English in the name – setter Ingles in Spanish, le setter anglais in French – may be a reminder of the breed’s country of origin, but the working strain has been developed and refined in Europe and the USA, not in the UK. True, we still have some excellent performers, but in recent years top breeders have imported English setters from Europe to bring fresh blood and renewed vigour into the breed.

These continental dogs come from a long line of setters that have been bred to retrieve, so training their progeny to pick up is unlikely to be a challenge. Who knows, perhaps one day we might recognise the fact that with the right training, a setter can do everything that an HPR like a German shorthaired pointer can do, but arguably with more style. Setters have always been regarded as grouse-moor specialists, but their talents deserve to be seen more widely. If they retrieve, there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.