Kate Gatacre champions three gundog breeds which, although not often seen in the field, make fantastic sporting companions when put to work.
There’s a description by Dr Johannes Caius, in 1576, of a dog that is “serviceable for fowling”, that when it has found game, “creepth forward like a worme”. When I spoke to Dom Goutorbe, who has had setters all his life (as did his father), he explained that English Setters should, once near game, lie down. “This is because they were often used with nets to catch the birds. The name, setter comes from that and the best way to remember is that a pointer points and a setter sets!” The modern English Setter’s appearance became discernible in the early 19th century, when Edward Laverack developed a strain and the best of these were then crossed by Richard Purcell Llewellin to form bloodlines still seen today – and working setters can be referred to as a “Llewellin” type.
Dom, who lives in the Peak District (handy for grouse moors, the setter’s natural habitat), is unusual in that he breeds both show and working setters and says they are very different in type: “It’s not that the show strains don’t have any hunting instinct, they’ll certainly go on point naturally, but they don’t have the stamina to do a day’s work.” The working strain, Dom says, should be “a running machine. You look for good strong quarters when you are breeding, and I’ll only breed from setters that are proven in the field.” However, Dom does believe that just because you are breeding for work, “it doesn’t mean you should compromise on the breed standard. It should still look like a setter.” The setter should have a high head, Dom explains, “as they air-scent. The US strains have tails that are upright, like flags, but we breed for flat tails – for dogs that do ‘set’ or crouch when they find game.”
Setters are slow to mature, and Dom doesn’t let his near game until they are at least 10 months old: “It’s not that they wouldn’t find game or point – in fact the opposite. Their instinct is incredibly strong and they would get difficult to handle if I introduced them to the field earlier.” However, in terms of character, Dom couldn’t praise them enough. “They are loyal, though I can send them out with other people to work, and they are amazing with my son, who is seven. I have 16 working setters and my son often spends time with all of them, playing rough and tumble.” Dom also has 13 show setters – so it is a breed he’s pretty familiar with and he tells me: “There is a family story that my great-great grandfather worked setters in the Alps!”
The Clumber Spaniel is a breed with an illustrious history, which makes it surprising that it has suffered such a setback in popularity since the beginning of the 20th century. Descended from spaniels that were stocky and coloured white with marmalade and liver splashes, the Clumber is named after Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, where it was developed in the latter half of the 18th century by gamekeeper William Mansell for the second Duke of Newcastle. The theory is that they came from France, a gift from the Duc de Noailles, but this remains unconfirmed. Certainly the Clumber found popularity among the highest echelons of society, and Queen Victoria recorded a walk in Windsor park with Prince Albert and his seven Clumbers.
John and Jane Smith-Bodden breed and work Clumbers in Derbyshire, under the Huddlestone kennel name. “We’ve got two dogs, three bitches and two bitch puppies at the moment,” they say. They’ve had Clumbers for over 10 years, having bought one as a companion for a pointer they had, “and we got clumbered! We’ve had them ever since.” They’ve not only had them, but both Jane and John are now committee members of The Working Clumber Spaniel Society. The breed, like so many gundogs, is split between the show and working types, which are very different: “Working dogs have a lighter frame and usually a tighter eye. Their functional differences follow more closely the Victorian paintings of the breed’s sporting ancestry. The colour is different too – we want good splashes of colour on our Clumbers, while show spaniels tend to be predominantly white.” The character of both, however, is loyal yet friendly.
Clumbers have a reputation for being good dogs to work in groups – and one can’t help wonder if this trait adds truth to the story that they have some hound blood in their breeding. “They take longer to mature than Springer or Cocker Spaniels,” John and Jane say, “but just like any spaniel, they need to be trained to be steady. The hunting instinct is strong enough.” When I tentatively suggest they have a reputation for being a little stubborn, Jane jumps in. “We prefer to say determined!”
The breed is becoming less obscure, the Smith-Boddens say, but, with such a small gene pool, it’s hard to say what its future will be. However, in 2017, Midori Diamond Huddlestone, known as Rigg, made history. Owned by the Smith-Boddens, trained and handled by Roy Ellershaw, Rigg won a novice stake of the Tyne Tees and Tweed Field Trial Association, becoming the first Clumber to win an any variety field trial since 1911.
Curly Coated Retriever
One of the few breeds where the show and working types are no different, the Curly Coat’s fate is perhaps less fragile than that of some other gundog breeds. This is also helped by its popularity abroad, as Denyse Watkins tells me. “You do find a lot of breeders in other countries, and as a breed society we are very active at keeping lines of communication open with them. I used a dog from the Netherlands to breed with my bitch and I’m getting a puppy from the US. It does help to maintain a bit more genetic diversity.”
The largest of the British retrievers, the Curly Coat can be found in liver or black, with the liver colour being recessive. Denyse has both: “I’ve two black and three liver, that’s with my four bitches and one dog.” She fell in love with the breed a decade ago, when a friend got one: “I’d had Golden Retrievers until then, but the curly coat completely won me over. My first dog was a puppy from my friend’s bitch.” And Denyse hasn’t looked back since. She shows her dogs, “but I still do a lot of training with them – the problem is time for me, and it would just take too much to do working trials.” In terms of character, the curly coat is, she says: “incredibly loyal, and will follow you around everywhere – to the point that some people might find it annoying. But it means that they are happy coming for a walk or just curled up on the sofa – as long as they are with you.”
She admits the breed can be slow to mature: “They take some training. They need to understand why you are asking them to do things, they don’t just blindly obey. They’re clever and think for themselves and can get bored, but they also want to please.” The breed’s ancestry is unknown – but it is thought that it might have the genetics of several breeds now extinct, such as the Tweed Water Spaniel and the Rough Water dog along with the lesser Newfoundland, Irish Water Spaniel and Poodle.
PHOTOS MARK FAIRHURST