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This month, Diane Michelsen, who has bred under the Gold Rush prefix for about 40 years, discusses liver and lemon belton, colors that have become rare in show circles. Diane, a student of the inheritance of color in English Setters for many years, is one of our leading experts.

The first Laverack English Setter imported from England in 1874 was a liver male. Pride of the Border was a prominent sire of his day, a good hunting dog that won Best ES at early American shows. Today’s current show winners are his descendents. In the 1950’s some British imports also carried the liver gene.

Liver beltons range in hue from milk chocolate to a dark, rich Hershey color. They have brown nose, eye rim and footpad pigmentation. Their eyes are lighter and genetically can not be darker. Livers carry two recessive genes for liver(bb) and at least one dominant gene E, just like blues or tri, which prevents the orange color(ee) from being expressed. There are liver tris, which have recessive genes for tan markings just like blue tris.

Lemons look just like oranges in coat color with the same range of shades from pale orange to dark, vivid orange and just like oranges they have two genes(ee) for orange. The reason they are called lemons is that genetically they have the two same recessive genes(bb) as livers and have brown nose, eye rim and footpad pigment. Just like an orange has a lighter shade of nose, eye rim, and footpad pigmentation than the blues; lemons have pigmentation that is lighter than livers. Lemons, like livers, have lighter eyes that genetically can’t be dark.

In order to get liver and lemon puppies in your whelping box, your sire and dam must each carry at least one gene for liver(b)and one of them must be a blue or a tri. If both also carry a gene for orange, you can get lemons. Using a liver parent instead of a carrier will increase the number of livers and possibly lemons in that litter. Two oranges that carry a liver(b) gene can produce oranges and lemons.

I think that livers and lemons are rare today because in the 1940’s and 1950’s, oranges dominated the show ring. Mostly, only oranges were being bred and any resulting lemons were (erroneously) faulted for their light eyes and pigmentation and removed from the breeding pool. I like the British standard, which says, “In liver beltons only, a lighter eye acceptable,” but for consistency, liver tris and lemons should be included. Many standards around the world allow a lighter eye for livers.

A judge evaluating a liver or lemon English Setter should be color blind. Judge the dog on his merits and place him accordingly. Accept that his eye color and pigmentation are appropriate for his liver genes. To paraphrase a breeder-judge, a good dog is a good dog, even if that dog is pink!

Liver beltons are an integral part of our breed heritage. They can and should hold equal ground with the other colors. Liver is a beautiful color; in many breeds, liver is the most popular color. With exposure to this color, more people will realize its beauty and it will become a color that is seen more often.

Thanks for a great discussion, Diane.

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