Are British gundogs the best in the world?
Demand for British breeds remains high, but in a changing world, writes Jeremy Hunt, there's no room for complacency
There are 38 gundog breeds recognised by the Kennel Club. Dogs from working strains of many of these breeds continue to be in demand worldwide — a clear indication of the UK’s outstanding reputation.
Food and sport
The UK has long been known as the “stockyard of the world”. It is a tag we carry with great pride and one which recognises our skills as breeders of pedigree livestock of all types. Going back centuries, the skills applied to breeding livestock in fields and stackyards inevitably spilled over into the way working dogs were bred, helping us gather a wild harvest of food from the countryside, as well as provide good sport.
The earliest keepers would bring their inherent and yet rudimentary understanding of breeding and selection and apply it to the dogs they cared for and whose job was to find game, flush it and hopefully return with it. It is safe to assume that even the earliest spaniels, imported from Spain more than 500 years ago, would have been selected and improved over generations.
Emerging supreme from this original bedrock of active flushing dogs was the English springer — and its cousin, the red-coated Welsh springer — and of course the cocker. Both English springers and cockers have brought the focus of international attention to UK breeders over many decades. It is thanks to the dedication and passion of some of our greatest gundog experts that spaniels with remarkable hunting skills and a phenomenal workrate are available to a worldwide market.
But going back to the early days, when the shooting of game evolved into more of a sport than simply a way of providing a source of food, we began to see new types of spaniels, as well as other breeds. All were developed through selection, to create dogs with specific traits and working qualities.
For the big sporting estates, there is no doubt that the way in which their gundogs were managed and bred was hugely significant. Dogs had to be functional, they had to work and there had to be plenty of them.
The remarkable video above was filmed on a large estate in Scotland in 1932. It clearly demonstrates is just how important gundogs were becoming and why it was deemed necessary to run kennels of this size.
Away from the grandiose scale of game and grouse shooting enjoyed by the wealthy business tycoons and aristocracy of almost a century ago, there was much going on elsewhere in the more parochial gundog world, particularly in the spaniel ranks.
Here in the UK there was such a passion for gundogs and so much natural ability for clever breeding and selection that new breeds were inevitable. Breeds such as the short-legged, liver-coated Sussex spaniel developed at Rosehill Park near Hastings almost 200 years ago.
There was even an initial cross between the Sussex and the cocker. The result produced the field spaniel, a lovely breed which may now only rarely be seen in the shooting field and has been ignored for too long.
We have never been shy at taking a free “canine” gift in the UK and at the end of the 18th century the first Clumber spaniels arrived from France. The dogs were presented to the Duke of Newcastle and took their name from his estate at Clumber Park.
Clumber breeders Debbie and John Zurick from Devon continue to fly the flag of this great spaniel breed. Both are devotees who display the sort of undying passion that is at the core of what keeps UK gundogs at the forefront of the world stage.
Of course the English springer — originally the Norfolk spaniel — and the cocker spaniel both exemplify the expertise of breeders over the years who have created two of the world’s most outstanding flushing and retrieving breeds.
The Labrador retriever, initially imported as a dog to retrieve birds from water, was recognised by the Kennel Club in 1903. This breed’s versatility and trainability was seized upon by UK gundog trainers from the earliest days of its arrival. The Labrador is still the world’s most popular dog — 150,000 puppies are registered annually with the American Kennel Club — and it is to the UK that devotees worldwide return to secure the very best genetics in terms of working ability.
The existence of several kennels in the US, which market themselves on the fact that they only produce “British-bred Labradors”, is testament to what UK breeders have achieved.
Last year 499 export pedigrees were issued by the Kennel Club for gundogs leaving the UK to new owners overseas. But while the UK continues to attract demand for many of our gundogs we must not forget that there has been a continual stream of gundog breeds heading to our shores over the years, mainly from Europe.
The German short-haired pointer and its wire-haired and long-haired variants as well as the Hungarian vizsla, the Weimaraner, the Italian spinone, the munsterlander and the Brittany spaniel have all gained passionate supporters whose efforts continue to strengthen the UK’s reputation as a leading nation of gundog breeders.
But there is always the risk that supremacy can lead to complacency and it is deeply concerning that the bloodlines of working English setters, Gordon setters and Irish setters, as well as English pointers, are now in the hands of so few.
So while we have much to be proud of when we look back over what we have achieved in the UK with our gundog breeds, we must also be aware that we are in danger of losing much of what has made us great.
It would be a lot to ask someone who is thinking about buying an English springer to consider a field spaniel or to expect someone to go for a Chesapeake Bay retriever rather than a Labrador. These, and other less popular alternatives, can be more challenging in terms of training but wherever possible they do deserve wider support.
It is disappointing to know it is the show ring, rather than the shooting field, that will be inevitably responsible for saving some gundog breeds from extinction.
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The movement of dogs across borders has been made much easier since we joined the EU. How that will be affected by Brexit negotiations remains to be seen but interest in working British gundogs in the UK is as strong as ever. Even if the drawbridge goes up, the UK remains the powerhouse of international gundog breeding.