Here and There Part Three: Homelands

In parts One and Two, I wrote about bird dog and hunting cultures in North America and Europe and compared the numbers of Pointers and Setters produced on each side of the Atlantic. In this post, I'll take a quick look at some rather surprising statistics related to Pointers and Setters in their homelands, the UK and Ireland.

But first, let's watch a remarkable video that captures the magic of the British bird dogs. It features Pointers and hawks hunting grouse on the moors, and it is breathtaking!

Now let's have a look at the numbers. They are not great. Published statistics reveal that Setters and Pointers are barely on the radar in the UK. In fact, the KC considers the English, Irish Red and White and Gordon setters as "vulnerable native breeds" since there are often fewer than 300 registrations in each of those breeds per year. The Irish Setter and the Pointer are in somewhat better shape, but, like the others, only a small minority is working stock. Have a look at this table of Kennel Club registration numbers from 2005 to 2014. I've highlighted the British and Irish pointing breeds in yellow, click to see a larger version. 

Clearly, the KC is experiencing a decline in overall registrations, but nowhere near as bad as the nose dive the AKC seems to taking.  Even so, registrations of all of British and Irish pointing breeds, except the Irish Red and White Setter, seem to be falling faster than the rate for all the gundog breeds combined which stands at about 15%. Registrations for both Pointers and Gordon Setters dropped by nearly 20%, English Setters by about 25% and Irish Setters by nearly 35%.

So what's going on? Why are Britain and Ireland's native pointing breeds in such rough shape in their homelands nowadays? Well, one thing to keep in mind is that this is not something new. In fact they were already in trouble even in William Arkwright's day, over a century ago. In his monumental work The Pointer and His Predecessors Arkwright lamented that:

No doubt, at present, the future looks rather gloomy for the pointer, but as ' 'tis darkest before dawn,' the present century may accentuate some streaks of light faintly wavering on his horizon. He is not yet half-way through the third stage of his existence, and if there were a sudden reaction, — his would not be the only case on record of re-establishment after forty years' wanderings. 

Derry Argue, in his excellent book Pointers and Setters, shed light on some of the reasons for the decline that Arkwright was witnessing:

The demise of the general popularity of shooting over pointers and setters came about through many small factors. Changes in feed formulation permitted the artificial rearing of game birds on a scale hitherto only dreamt of. The Continental fashion for 'battu', i.e. driven shooting, was gaining in popularity and was given the seal of royal approval by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's German husband, who was keen on this type of sport. Who would dare to condemn the practice as ungentlemanly or unsporting now? More traditional British sportsmen had condemned this style of shooting for generations, now it was dogging that was decried as 'old fashioned'.

To get an idea of what 'battu' shooting was like, watch this video of modern day driven shoots for pheasant, partridge and grouse at Ripley Castle. It's a fantastic video, with lots of great scenes of birds, guns, hunters, Labs and spaniels, but nary a Pointer or Setter to be seen.

Another explanation for the decline in popularity of Pointers and setters in their native lands is that British sportsmen and women can't seem to get enough of 'new' and exotic pointing breeds from the Continent. Look again at the table of registrations given above. It shows that all of the pointing breeds native to the Britain and Ireland declined, but several non-native breeds including the GSP, Bracco Italiano, Korthals Griffin, Vizsla, Wirehaired Vizsla and Portuguese Pointer, actually grew in numbers during that same period. And since then, even more breeds such as the Picardy Spaniel, Pont Audemer Spaniel and Braque d'Auvergne have made their way to the UK. But once again, the trend is not new. Way back around 1900, Arkwright wrote:

It is odd that a club founded more or less in the interests of the English sporting breeds should so soon have forsaken them to run after foreign dogs that are useless in England; but, as Dr. Caius remarked over three hundred years ago, 'We English men are marvellous greedy gaping gluttons after
novelties, and covetous cormorants of things that be seldom, rare, strange and hard to get.' He knew his fellow countrymen then — and now !

Clearly the foreign dogs are not 'useless in England'. Obviously some have proven to be very good hunters and most have earned relatively good reputations among British hunters. Nevertheless, Arkwright is correct; British hunters, for a variety of reasons, did turn their backs on their native pointing breeds in favour of 'rare, strange and hard to get' breeds from the Continent. Ironically, in the late 1800s, it was the other way around. Continental hunters turned their backs on their native pointing breeds and jumped, en masse, onto the Pointer and Setter bandwagon. So now Pointer and Setter populations in places like Italy, France and Spain dwarf the populations in Britain and Ireland.

Finally, perhaps the most important reason why Pointers and setters are no longer common in Britain and Ireland, and the reason why they probably never again will be, is the fact that there is that suitable terrain to run them in is hard to find.  

Perhaps the low ground could produce pheasants and partridge but the ground cover beloved by the game birds had disappeared. Hand reaping left knee-high stubbles. The new reaping machines shaved stubbles to ground level and the straw was carted off. ...Dogging fell out of fashion in every area except where there was no other way of coming to terms with game. — Derry Argue, Pointers and Setters, p.38

And that really is a shame. I can't think of anything more exciting than seeing a brace of Pointers or setters working the moors for grouse. And that is why going to the UK to interview breeders and see their dogs perform is at the top of my bucket list right now. I mean, how great would it be to attend a field trial for Pointers and Setters run on the moors?!

Enjoy my blog posts? Check out my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals