The Dying Breeds

Despite the best efforts of the Kennel Club, Individual Breed Clubs and the British and Irish Breeds Preservation Trust, it seems that the message is being preached only to the converted.

With more and more people choosing exotic dogs over home-grown varieties, our native companions are facing extinction.Justine Hankins reports

Justine Hankins
Saturday February 19, 2005
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Is it curtains for the curly coated retriever and the deerhound? Are Lancashire heelers, Lakeland terriers and King Charles spaniels about to follow the dodo?

It seems that some British dog breeds may now be a mere yelp or two away from extinction - 28 of the 63 recognised British and Irish breeds have fewer than 300 annual registrations. As a result, the Kennel Club's Vulnerable Native Breeds Group is striving gently to remind the novelty-seeking British public that a Skye terrier, say, is just as lovable as a dogue de bordeaux or a Finnish lapphund.

But has the horse already bolted? The relaxing of quarantine laws in recent years has made it far easier to import dogs to Britain, and eye-catching breeds such as the Japanese akita and the Chinese shar pei are now stealing the show. The smooth fox terrier is passé, the future is all shih-tzu.

The Kennel Club itself is partly responsible for the decline of the indigenous pooch - 40 breeds were listed when it started out in 1873; there are now 202 and counting, including recent additions such as the Portuguese podengo, the Pyrenean mastiff and the azawakh from Mali. "We welcome new breeds," explains the Kennel Club's Sara Ward, "but we mustn't forget our British dogs".

But what is a "British" dog, anyway? Even the greyhound, which has lived on these islands for more than 1,000 years, originally came from the Middle East, while that canine embodiment of middle England, the labrador, is still, officially at least, a foreigner.

And does it really matter if people prefer lhasa apsos to clumber spaniels? The demise of the Welsh terrier isn't going to throw the ecosystem out of whack, after all - we're not talking here about red squirrels or avocets. Yet much the same could be said of Tamworth pigs or Leicester longwool sheep, and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust still thinks these threatened farm animals are worth saving.

So could a similar organisation work for endangered dogs? Possibly, but there is one crucial distinction - even unusual farm animals can still lay eggs, produce milk, grow wool or be turned into steak. Conversely, career options for the endangered dog breeds have narrowed considerably over time. Most of the vulnerable breeds are working dogs (terriers), hunting hounds, and gun dogs (relics of country estate shoots). In other words, they're a reflection of a pest-infested, industrial past, a shadow of strong regional identities that have since faded into a more homogenous Britain. So while you might well be happy to tuck into a Gloucestershire Old Spot sausage, no one's likely again to take a Manchester terrier out ratting in the mills, say, or drive cattle with a Cardigan Welsh corgi.

We don't choose dogs for function any more, so British breeds will have a sustainable future only if they can compete in the crowded canine companion market - that means the likes of otterhounds and dalmatians will have to fight it out in the popularity pit. Yet I, for one, don't feel quite ready to say goodbye to the English toy terrier or the bloodhound. Dogs, after all, are as much a part of our cultural heritage as dialects, sea shanties and water mills - "They're part of our history as a nation," says the Kennel Club's Sara Ward.

The Dandie Dinmont, for instance, is the only breed to be named after a fictional character (from Walter Scott's Guy Mannering). It would be a shame to see him go, but nostalgia alone won't save him - and anyway, I've got German dogs, so I'm in no position to get all maudlin over his demise.