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Returning To Our Roots
October 2017

Most of us with English Setters know that once upon a time, when our great-grandparents were young, English Setters were a popular breed. They were one of the first nine breeds accepted into the American Kennel Club in 1884. Chances are, when you’ve had your dog at a dog show or been out for a walk, you’ve encountered seniors who say something like, “I had one of those dogs when I was a boy (or girl). We used to hunt all day….”

Sadly, public tastes change. More people live in cities today and fewer people hunt. Sometimes we’re lucky if people don’t mistake our dogs for “longhaired Dalmatians.” For years now AKC has been registering fewer than 1000 English Setters per year – a lot fewer. The situation is even worse in the UK where our breed originated. The English Setter has been hovering there with about 300 registrations per year, barely managing to stay off the Most Vulnerable Native Breeds list most years.

If this was the entire story for English Setters today it would, indeed, be a dismal picture. But it’s not the whole story and I think there are some things we can do to make things better for the breed we love.

According to figures from 37 FCI countries, the English Setter was ranked 19th in popularity among all breeds worldwide in 2013. Seriously. I’m not kidding. Some 29,771 English Setters were registered in these countries. This does not include the Kennel Club in the UK or AKC numbers. It does include Italy, which registered 14,510 English Setters in 2011; and France, which registered 5,390 in 2015. (These are the most recent numbers I could find in each country.) In fact, the English Setter has been the most popular breed in Italy and one of the most popular breeds in France. Most of us here in the United States have no idea of the popularity of our breed in Europe. We’re used to feeling isolated with a breed that few people recognize. But that’s not the case everywhere.

I’m told that many of the English Setters registered in France, Italy, and other European countries are hunting dogs. They’re not the bench dogs or “Laveracks” that we’re used to. However, there are plenty of show breeders in these countries with beautiful dogs. Some American breeders have already had wonderful results working with European breeders such as Fairray Kennels, Blue Baltic, Setter Della Cruismany, Los Vitorones, Fanchon and others.

Why do I mention the worldwide population of English Setters? Because we need to be mindful of our breed’s genetic health and numbers are important. These numbers don’t tell the entire story because a breed’s total population is not the same as its effective population, but having more dogs is certainly better than being on the verge of extinction. For example, the worldwide population of Labrador Retrievers is vast. They are the number one breed in many countries, along with the United States. But their effective population size, or the number of dogs contributing genetically to the breed, is estimated to be 114 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2390636/, at least in Great Britain. Fewer than 100 is considered to be critical by conservation biologists. Less than 50 and a breed is considered to be at serious risk for the future. So, just because a breed has large numbers does not guarantee their genetic health. The effective population size for English Setters (in the UK) is about 29 and the number is probably similar for American English Setters. The breed COI for 22 generations for UK and American English Setters is about the same.

If we do have such a low effective population size, it would be wise to think about where we could find other English Setters to increase it. European English Setters are one source. From a genetic/health point of view, even if most of the English Setters registered in Europe are hunting dogs, that’s fine. We should also re-consider the English Setter field dogs, handsome Rymans, and Llewellins here in the U.S. which most show breeders have shied away from for decades. I’m not suggesting that we should all start including these dogs in our breeding plans right away but, when people start worrying about genetic diversity in English Setters, I think they need to keep in mind that there is far more diversity in the breed than they may realize. Some of these populations of ES have been separated from each other since the days when Purcell Llewellin* was still breeding dogs. These English Setters may go by different names or be different “strains,” but if we reach the point where we start to think our breed has lost too much diversity, we have places to turn within the breed. Some other countries and their kennel clubs are already considering this option for certain breeds with low genetic diversity.

The same is true for many sporting breeds which had a show/field split in the 20th century. Breed genetic health for the future could be improved by returning to your breed’s roots and having a rapprochement with your field family. Not that this would be easy. Many field breeders are dead set against show dogs and show breeders. But if the health of our breeds is at stake, we may need to work together.

I know I will be cursed by people who detest upright tails and who hate the thought of ever breeding to field dogs but if it means keeping our English Setters healthy and viable for the future, I think this is something we need to consider, at least as a contingency plan.

Of course, the main problem for English Setters in the United States – and for many other breeds – is that we are losing breeders. When you lose breeders, you also lose dogs, litters, and puppies. That’s a big problem – and a subject for another day.

*If you have read much about Mr. Llewellin’s breeding, you probably know that he did not hesitate to cross his Laveracks with other hunting dogs in his efforts to produce the kind of dogs he wanted. His most successful dogs were the result of breeding from a dog that was half-Gordon. Other sources reveal that he bred to Irish Setters and produced some beautiful dogs. Many of his dogs can be found in our late 19th century/early 20th century pedigrees. Llewellins that are 100 percent pure have been registered by the Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) for decades, making this a very interesting source of genetic material for English Setter fanciers. They are registered as a separate breed from the English Setter in that registry. The fact that Mr. Llewellin was sometimes working with outcrossed dogs should be taken into account by people trying to figure genetic diversity in the English Setter.

Carlotta Cooper
English Setter Association of America
Greeneville TN
423 639-6195

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