Changing gundog breeds and the rise of the HPR

Words by:
Matt Limb OBE
Featured in:
November 2022

Matt Limb OBE looks at the growing poplularity of hunt, point and retrieve gundogs from Europe and the role of traditional English breeds.

I have to confess that I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to a day’s picking-up or standing on a peg on a driven shoot. I was always taught that it was about respect for the day, your colleagues, plus the shoot itself and the quarry.

Looking back over the years, little has changed. Tweed is still the number one and preferred dress of the day, but subtly this has changed with the growth of modern textiles. Gone are the heavy, itchy tweeds that weighed a ton when damp and smelled like an old Labrador dog for a week until fully dry. The modern tweed is much lighter in weight; it can still be windproof whilst being waterproof, but I suspect they will only last a fraction of the time that traditional loom-woven tweeds have, and we are unlikely to see tweed shooting suits passed from father to son, as is the tradition.

Another change in recent decades across the shooting world has been from the traditional side-by-side to the under-and-over shotgun. I can remember this causing a great stir in its day, with old traditional estate shoots preferring that you did not shoot with them, almost to the point of banning them. Even today I have some shooting colleagues who still say that a good old English side-by-side is better than any under-and-over shotgun. Change is inevitable, it has always been there – some changes we embrace and some we would prefer to forget.

But if there has been one change we cannot have failed to notice over the past couple of decades, it is the breed of our best friend, who joins us on a peg, in the beating line or picking up. Everyone has noticed the change in gundogs.

As a young lad out with my late father along with his English Springer Spaniels, there was little choice. I can remember Labradors in their various colours, the odd Golden Retriever, even Setters and one I particularly liked, the Flat-coated Retriever, plus of course spaniels – all traditional English breeds. But today we see a much greater range of breeds on a shoot day. Breeds that just a few years ago were hardly known are finding their way into the beating line and with the pickers-up, or indeed accompanying guns on shoots.

As a teenager I can remember seeing my first HPR (hunt, point and retrieve), it was a Large Münsterländer and it had the shape and look of a traditional English Retriever but was very different. Today, breeds such as Weimaraners, German Wirehaired and Shorthaired Pointers, the Vizsla and even Bracco Italianos are fast becoming common on shoots – all originating from across Europe and all hunt, point, retrievers.

But why have we seen such a great change, and does this indicate the end of the traditional English gundog breeds?

As I chat with people who are now dedicated to breeding and working a variety of HPR breeds, there appear to be a few common factors that brought such breeds to our shores.

In terms of history, there was a great change following World War Two across Europe, as many countries identified the need to change their hunting dogs. It was virtually a clean, fresh start to develop new breeds of dogs.

A good example of this is the popular Slovakian Rough Haired Pointer, the breed that originated in Slovakia, then part of Czechoslovakia, soon after World War Two. It was created by crossing Weimaraners, Český Fousek and German Wirehaired Pointers. Over time this resulted in a very steady working HPR which has the rough coat and facial hair of a German Wirehaired Pointer but keeps the classic silver-to-grey coloured coat of the Weimeraner.

Another factor we must consider when we look at any HPR is the very nature of shooting in Europe compared with here in the British Isles. The traditionally driven shoot, so popular and common here, is much harder to find across the channel. Far more common is walked-up shooting in Europe; in fact just a few weeks ago on a damp morning in France, I stood and watched as about half a dozen hunters (as they are defined in Europe) walked across several fields as they worked their dogs in front of them, waiting for them to go on point.

On another trip a few years ago in Belgium, I sat in a small café bar with a couple of local hunters chatting about shooting and dogs, as two damp German Wirehaired Pointers sat warming themselves by the fire. The result of enjoying their company was to highlight the difference: no dressing up in tweeds, just a couple of friends and their dogs out to get something for the pot.

Their bag that morning included some game but in the main wild boar. Then with a great sense of humour, they referred to our driven shooting as getting all dressed up to shoot flying chickens.

So, given the fresh start after the last war in developing a unique breed of dogs and the difference in shooting across Europe, it is clear how the HPR group of gundogs came into being. But do they have a future here in the UK? Without a shadow of a doubt, they do, if only for our version of European shooting, which is the ever-popular rough shooting. Here, a well-trained HPR able to hold on point means that a gun can get into a suitable and safe position to shoot the quarry once flushed on command by the dog.

But I think there is a second and bigger reason we continue to see a growth in the numbers of HPR in the British Isles.

A well-trained HPR will hunt with a very different nature and discipline to the more traditional gundog. For example, the English Springer Spaniel gets its name from springing the game into the air, working at close quarters to its handler and in the roughest cover. An HPR on the other hand will track and follow a scent over hundreds of yards; a skill developed in Europe to track the larger quarry, like deer.

If we remember the massive increase in deer numbers across the British Isles and with it the growing popularity of deer stalking, it is not hard to see why many people regard the abilities and skills of a well-trained HPR gundog as one of the best assets you can have.

If we accept we are living in a world of change, then none of the HPR breeds should be overlooked. However, knowing the role you would like them to play is far more important. If you see your future as a gun, beater, or picker-up on a driven shoot, maybe the skills and abilities of an HPR will not be required. But with the ever-growing popularity of deer stalking, where there is a requirement to track an animal’s scent over a long distance, an HPR would be an obvious choice.

The big question remains, will I change? Do I see myself trading in the spaniels for an HPR? It is highly unlikely, I think I have ‘Springer Spaniel Blood’ in my veins, as I can remember a Springer running around the house from the youngest of ages. Plus I still get great pleasure from watching the excitement and busy bustle of a working Springer running out for a retrieve or flushing and working on a busy day – but you never know.

Photographs: Matt Limb OBE

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