The English Setter has roots deep in history, with references to "setting spaniels" predating the advent of shotguns in the hunting field. These early European "setters" were used by hunters to locate and "set" game birds, or hold them in place, while the hunters placed nets that would entrap the birds when flushed. Various breeds have been mentioned in the lineage of the setter, among them Spanish Pointer, large Water Spaniel, and English Springer Spaniel.
The development of the modern setter is generally agreed to have been initiated by one British gentleman by the name of Edward Laverack (1800-1877). Overlapping the latter part of Mr. Laverack's tenure was another British gentleman of note in setter breeding, Mr. R. Purcell Llewellin (1840-1925). Anyone even casually acquainted with English Setter bloodlines will recognize this famous name, as it has become synonymous with field type setters. Mr. Llewellin began exporting some of his dogs to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, and they immediately became the center of attention among American setter breeders.
Men of renown in American field setter breeding used the Llewellin lines, as well as others , to establish the modern American hunting setter. Among these pioneers in American setter breeding were Mr. George H. Ryman, who established Ryman gun dog kennel in Shohola Falls, PA in 1916. A man of fierce determination to breed the best, he was known to be very selective and to cull without mercy in order to achieve this ideal. After his stroke in 1955, his dogs were no longer hunted or field proven, and the line began to decline. After his death in 1961, the kennel was run by his wife, Ellen, and her new husband Carl Calkins. This was the beginning of the end for the Ryman line, as the new proprietors had neither the skill nor the resolve for excellence of the originator. After a few years of struggle, the name and supposedly the best remaining dogs of the line were sold to a Mr. Robert Sumner from West Virginia. Purchased mostly on the legacy of Ryman's past accomplishments, Mr. Sumner soon realized that the line was no longer what it had been and, indeed, had diminished to the point that he closed up shop in 1977. Fortunately, enough of Mr. Ryman's line had passed into the hands of those who had purchased them through the years that these excellent bloodlines still course through the veins of many of today's setters.
Enter the inimitable Mr. George Bird Evans, (1906-1998) onto the setter breeding scene. An observer of the Ryman phenomenon, Mr. Evans, an illustrator by trade, purchased a parcel of land near Brandonville, WV in 1939 and embarked on a long career of hunting upland game (primarily grouse and woodcock), breeding fine setters, and writing prolifically about it. He, like Ryman, sought to breed a "foot hunting" dog , one who tended to hunt close in the heavy grouse cover of his beloved Old Hemlock property. He and his wife Kay, his partner in life and soul mate in the dog breeding business, succeeded in just that. The Old Hemlock Society (www.oldhemlock.org) exists today as a legacy to his efforts, as well as to his desire to preserve his beloved home and property at Old Hemlock. I highly recommend his books to anyone interested in setters and hunting with them.
This has been a very superficial treatment of a very deep and extensive subject, but I hope it gives you some insight into the specific history of the breed, and the specific lines, we here at Daybreak English setters have come to know and love. We hope to leave our own legacy, however small, of quality hunting setters and loving canine companions among the names of these famous pioneers of the breed. As you sit before the fire on a cold fall evening, with that glass of fine single malt Scotch in your hand (my favorite is Laphroaig 10 year old), your priceless Parker over your knee, and your orange Belton setter warming her bones tired from the day's hunt, remember the men who made this most poignant moment in the life of a gentleman hunter's life possible. Cheers, gentlemen! Your efforts are appreciated.
Dr. James C Barger, 2013