What’s the difference between the four breeds of Setter? The English, Irish Red, Irish Red and White and the Gordon? And where’s the Welsh Setter?!
So firstly, what are Setters in particular? A Setter is a type of working dog that hunts game, being able to detect their scent in the wind, rather than on terrain. Once the scent has been located, Setters point towards the birds until their handler arrives in a unique “set” position. They crouch completely still facing the direction of their quarry.
In the past, Setters would wait for a trained hawk to do an air retrieve, or for their handler to throw a net to trap the bird. However, today, it is more likely that the game will be shot. The Setter, although not a Retriever, will bring back the bird to his handler.
So how do the four differ? Well, the reason behind their split is the individual geography of their origin.
There are four different breeds, despite the fact that Irish Setters used to be able to produce both Red, and Red and White within their litters – even some with a colouring called “Hail” which is sadly now extinct – where white ticking across the red coat could occur, like it had been pebbledashed with hail!
The two Irish breeds of Setters are built to manouevre the boggy, squelchy moor like terrain of their country, meaning that they had to be light on their feet, and their fur had to deal with mud! The solid coloured Irish is slightly bigger than the Red and White as a noticeable difference apart from their colouring.
The Gordon Setter, originally known as the Black and Tan – hails from Scotland. It is the heaviest of bone in the Setter quartet, is a good size, sturdy and better equipped to deal with the hard ground and high cover of the Scottish landscape. This breed is specialised for strength and stamina rather than speed. Bizarrely, the Duke of Gordon, actually preferred the Black, White and Tans of the litters… which we do not see today! In fact, within the standard, it states that only a very small white spot on the chest is permissible.
The English Setter – which comes in a few colours, Blue Belton (blue and grey mottled ticking), Orange Belton (orange ticking) and Tricolour (grey ticking with tan points), is more moderate than the other breeds, which is due to England’s open and gentler landscape compared to Ireland and Scotland. It is not as heavy as the Gordon, but not as light as the Irish.
And, where did the Welsh Setter go? Well there was one! The Llanidloes Welsh Setter unfortunately went extinct, but we do have a description from Edward Laverack just on the cusp of its disappearance in 1872. Again, the breed was built for it’s terrain – steep hills and valleys. The dogs were a milky white, sometimes with lemon coloured patches over an eye.Their fur sounded extraordinary compared to the modern Setters, as it had a course, and tightly curled coat, much like a Cotswold Sheep, or Curly Coated Retriever – which breed ancestry experts believe to be a precursor to the breed. This coat would have been amazing in its ability to resist the cold in the damp Welsh mountainside.
Laverack also mentions liver and white Setters that were used in Cumberland and Northumberland, and also a jet black variety that was kept by the Earl of Tankerville. There must have been lots more that were used out in different terrains and for different hunting styles, unfortunately today, we are only left with the four that you see in the drawing below.