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Updated: 22 weeks 1 day ago

Here and There Part Three: Homelands

Fri, 2015-04-10 22:33

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

Here and There, Part Two

Thu, 2015-04-09 17:39
In Part One of this series, I provided a brief overview of the differences and similarities in the overall bird dog and hunting cultures of North America and Europe. In this post, I'd like to take a look at the overall populations of the British and Irish pointing breeds in parts of Europe and the US.

In the US, it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, just how many Pointers or Setters are produced every year. But, based on a few sources of data currently available from around 2008, it looks like within the AKC, the Irish Setter is the most popular of the setter breeds with about 1000 registrations per year. It is followed by the Gordon Setter with about 5-600 per year and the English Setter which currently sees fewer than 100 registrations per year. The Irish Red and White Setter was only added to the AKC's list of recognized breeds in 2009. I've been unable to determine the number of registrations in that breed per year, but the AKC lists its popularity near the bottom, at 149th place on a list of 178 breeds.

So, taking into account that the numbers above are from 2008, and that registration numbers of all breeds in the AKC have declined even more since then, I estimate that all 4 setters breeds combined represent about 1500 AKC registrations per year. As for the Pointer, the 2008 numbers indicate that there were only 369 registrations. Currently, it is probably well below 300. Of course, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of AKC Setters and Pointers are not from lines selected for hunting and field trials and that the vast majority of breeders of working (hunting, field trial) Pointers and Setters do not register their dogs with the AKC. Instead, they register them with the Field Dog Studbook.

It has long been assumed that over the last 100 years or so, roughly equal numbers of Pointers and Setters (mainly English) are registered with the FDSB each year.  In 2004, for example, Field Trial Magazine published stats indicating that the numbers were 6,256 Pointers and 4,906 Setters registered in 2003. But again, like the AKC, the FDSB has been experiencing a decline in the number of dogs registered each year. Currently, based on the total number of all breeds registered per year by the FDSB, it looks the combined number of Pointers and Setters registered with the FDSB each year is below 5000. Nevertheless, among North American hunters Pointers and Setters remain quite popular and in some field trial venues, like all-age horseback trials and cover dog trials they represent the gold standard of performance and completely dominate the scene from Manitoba to Mexico.

Here is a video of an English setter from American lines hunting in classic ruffed grouse terrain in the US.

 In much of Europe however, Setters outnumber Pointers by a huge margin. A recently published chart shows that the English setter makes the top ten list of all breeds in several European countries. And in Italy, the English setter is the most popular of all dog breeds with annual registrations of up to 20 thousand pups!
In NorwaySweden and Denmark, Gordon, and Irish Setters are also very popular, sometimes even more popular than English Setters. The Pointer, in most regions of Europe is not as popular as the English setter but is typically about as popular as the GSP and Brittany.

It is hard to say why the English Setter is so popular in many parts of Europe. I wrote about breed popularity here and rarity here. But recently, I posted a question on one of the top online forums for the discussion of hunting dogs in Italy asking Italian hunters, why they loved the English setter so much.

Some of the answers supported my belief that influential voices can have a huge effect on popularity. "The English setter is the most popular dog for hunters and field trials because many of the big name writers who wrote about hunting dogs in the 60s were Setter men. Vincenzo Celano's books about hunting woodcock with setters were very influential. And all you had to do was open any hunting magazine like Diana and you'd find many articles on English Setters."

And others supported my assertion that once a breed achieves a certain level of popularity, it can grow so strong that it completely dominates a local scene. "Among the hunters in my valley, approximately 95% of them hunt over setters. I hunt over them because all my hunting friends have them and my father who hunts with me also has setters. Around here, the word 'Setter' is more or less synonymous with 'hunting dog' "
Another respondent, only half-jokingly wrote that the English setter appeals to fundamental qualities of Italian culture. "Italians have very refined tastes in many areas, in the kitchen, at the table, in fashion, design and architecture and Italy is the motherland of some of the greatest writers, artists and composers in history. So a breed like the English setter, with such incredible beauty and talent, fits perfectly with our passion for the finer things in life."

Here is a video of English setters from Italian lines hunting woodcock in the alps of northern Italy.

Of course, when it comes to the British and Irish breeds of pointing dogs, the biggest outlier in Europe is Germany. There, the most popular pointing dog is the Deutsch Drahthaar, followed by the other German pointing breeds. Other pointing breeds, even breeds that are super popular elsewhere are barely on the radar.  Nevertheless, there are a few Setters and Pointers in Germany and there are German clubs for their breeds. The German Pointer club has actually been around for over 100 years. I will write more about the Pointer and Setter scene in Germany, especially about its fascinating history, in an upcoming post. But for now, here is a video of Setters and Pointers running in a field trial in Germany.


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

Here and There, Part One

Wed, 2015-03-18 13:41
The Hunting scene in much of Europe mirrors that of North America in many important ways. For example, the average age, gender, socio-economic status of the average hunter there is about the same as it is here (basically white, middle aged males of average or slightly above average socio-economic standing). Hunters in Europe struggle with many of the same issues that we do here; loss of habitat, decreases in (some) game numbers, increases in anti-hunting initiatives, urban sprawl etc. and the overall number of hunters in Europe and in North America are declining at about the same rate.

One bright spot on both sides of the ocean however is the increase in the number of woman hunters taking to the field. I wrote about one very special women who only started hunting last year, at the age of, well let's just say 'over 40'.

The ratio of hunters to non-hunters is about the same in France (1:48) and Spain (1:41) as in the US (1:42). But in countries like Norway and Finland, there are about twice as many hunters, proportionally, than in the US (Norway 1:24, Finland 1:17) Surprisingly, Ireland leads the pack with a 1:12 ratio of hunter to non-hunter and Germany is well down the list with a ratio of 1:233.
Dutch Huntress, hunting woodcock
in Canada with an English Setter
bred in France, from Italian lines. When it comes to our sporting dogs and field trials,  the stats are a bit harder to parse, but the overall number of sporting dogs registered seems to be in steep decline on both sides of the ocean. I was just digging through registration numbers for English Setters the other day and I saw that the numbers of registrations in Italy dropped from a high of 19,775 in 2003, to 12,536 in 2013.
In North America, I saw a similar decline. When I looked at FDSB numbers, for example I found that from a total number of about 20,000 dogs (of all breeds) registered per year around 1990, the numbers fell to about 10,000 per year in the early 2000s and were only 5500 in 2012. Please note: these are ball park estimates of registrations only. There is no way to know how many dogs were whelped but not registered. The numbers given also represent registrations per year for all the breeds that the FDSB recognizes. However, I assume that the majority are Pointers and Setters and that there are roughly equal numbers of those breeds registered with the FDSB every year.
AKC numbers are harder to figure out since that organization no longer publishes stats for any breed. Instead, they now provide a list of 'most popular breeds' without divulging any actual numbers. Terrierman feels that the reason they won't publish numbers is that they don't want the public to see the nose dive they are taking. In fact, he wrote that if things keep going the way they are now, the AKC could be out of business in 2025. In any case, the number of AKC Pointers has always been pretty small, and the number of AKC setters is probably in just as steep decline as the other breeds. In England, the number of English Setters being registered has fallen to such low numbers that the Kennel Club declared the breed 'at risk of extinction' in 2012.
Field trial numbers are equally hard to figure out. In North America, there are several different organizations sponsoring a wide variety of trials in many different areas. The overall scene seems to be vibrant and trials are quite popular in many areas. Personally, I think the North American field trial scene is fantastic. I am a fan of all the various formats and wish I had a dog that was actually competitive in them. I also believe that North American field trials are one of the most effective systems ever devised of selecting top knotch hunting dogs. No other system on the planet produces dogs with the kind of endurance, 'grit', and stamina that our best Pointers and setters possess. And no other system on earth produces dogs with the sort of style we prefer either. America produces awesome dogs, especially for American (and Canadian!) sportsmen and women. The combination of extreme competition entered into by capable dog men maintaining highly focussed breeding programs fuels the production of awesome dogs that are perfectly matched to the game, terrain, culture and market they are intended for.
Field trial near Broomhill, ManitobaIn Europe the same thing applies. To the surprise of many folks in North America, there is actually a large and dynamic field trial scene in Europe that stretches across most of continent. From the south of Spain to the north of France, to Italy, Poland, Croatia, Greece and Scandinavia, trials are run almost year round in one region or another on wild and released game (actually planting birds is illegal in most places). Euro trial sizes range from less than a dozen dogs run on single day to literally hundreds of dogs run over a week or more. And, like our system here, the combination of extreme competition entered into by capable dog men running highly focussed breeding programs fuels the production of very good dogs that are perfectly matched to the game, terrain, culture and market they are intended for.
Brittany running in a field trial in the north of France
Unfortunately, on both sides of the ocean, it is hard not to see a slow decline in all aspects of the outdoor sporting scene. Every year I attend trials here, or there, I notice that the judges, handlers and gallery have a few more grey hairs (as do I) and I also notice in most years there are not quite as many trials scheduled as in years past.
So I guess if I could sum it all up, I would say that when you compare the sporting culture of North America and Europe, the differences are what you notice first. It's like watching American football and Rugby. Its hard not to see how different they appear. But when you look a little closer you realize that the similarities far outweigh the differences. Both are extreme athletic pursuits that separate the men from the boys real quick. And if you look close enough, you see that Football and Rugby, North American sporting culture and European sporting culture are basically a question of 'same church, different pew'. Both demand and produce excellence. Both honour, respect and reflect the traditions and cultures in which they thrive and both, to me at least, are absolutely fascinating to study.
American and European hunting cultures:
the similarities far outweigh the differences.Bottom line: Millions of men and women on both sides of the ocean enjoy outdoor sport. The most dedicated among them devote their lives to their sport, and the rest of us benefit from the hard work and dedication they provide. America has no shortage of such people. We've produced some of the most dedicated, talented and skillful breeders, handlers and judges in the world and their hard work allows sportsmen and women in North America and beyond to enjoy days afield with some of the finest sporting dogs in the world.
But no part of the world has a monopoly on hard work or dedication or talent or skill. So no matter where you find dedicated, talented and skillful breeders, handlers and judges you will probably find sportsmen and women enjoying days afield with some of the finest sporting dogs in the world, dogs that are perfectly matched to the game, terrain, culture and market they are intended for.
One of my favourite images from my Prairie Dogs photo essay.

Click here to read HERE AND THERE PART TWO.

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

The Huntress

Sun, 2015-02-08 16:49

My Photo Essays Are Getting a Makeover

Fri, 2015-01-23 14:29
With my trusty Canons and Leicas near Broomhill, MB (photo: P. Dot Porquez)
I've recently fallen in love with a new online platform for publishing my photo essays. I've only posted two projects so far, and both are just updated versions of essays I've already published here. But stay tuned for a lot more to come!

I will still be using this blog for various rants, raves, updates, news and other features, but for picture-heavy photo essays, check out the new look at https://cdog.exposure.co/ I will also embed the essays right here, but to really appreciate the great look of the new site, click on the link at the bottom of the essay.

Prairie Dogs by Craig Koshyk on Exposure