UK native dog breeds 'at risk of extinction'

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

image captionThe English setter has seen a steep decline in registrations over 10 years

Native dog breeds such as the English setter are being pushed towards extinction by the growing popularity of more exotic dogs such as huskies and Chihuahuas, new figures suggest.

The setter has appeared for the first time on the UK Kennel Club's list of vulnerable breeds.

Figures show a two thirds drop in puppy registrations in the last decade.

The Chihuahua, popularised by celebrity owners like Paris Hilton, saw a 25% increase in registrations last year.

But the celebrity effect appears to have been positive for one native breed - the Cardigan Welsh corgi, whose skyrocketing numbers have been ascribed to links with the Queen and the Royal Wedding.

Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club said: "Celebrities, popular culture and fashion play a big part in today's society and unfortunately, dogs are not immune from our fickle tastes.

"The latest victim is the English setter, a wonderful and loyal breed, while the number of Siberian huskies has more than trebled in this country in the last 10 years."

Fran Grimsdell from Norfolk, who breeds English setters, told BBC News: "The thing that saddens me is that we're getting people buying puppies, but they're nearly all people who have already owned English setters.

"English setters have got a fantastic nature... I would say that they are sensitive, terribly affectionate, loyal and wonderfully elegant in appearance. They are good with children. They can be a bit wilful... but I love that."

image captionCelebrity culture seems to be influencing the popularity of some breeds

Thought to be one of the oldest native breeds, the setter's history stretches back at least 200 years to dogs used for hunting upland game birds. The medium-sized breed - with its characteristic flecked coat - is regarded as a good family pet, but also requires a large home and lots of exercise.

With 234 registrations last year, the setter joins 24 other dogs considered to be at risk of extinction on the club's list of Native Vulnerable Breeds. British and Irish breeds are added when puppy registrations drop below 300 in a year.

In 2011, some 3,000 dogs were registered across the 25 vulnerable breeds. Chihuahuas, meanwhile, saw more than 6,000 registrations.

Arguably the most endangered breed of all is the otterhound, a large rough-coated dog with a loud, baying call. There were just 38 otterhound registrations last year (a decline of 33% on 2010).

Pam Marston-Pollock, chair of the UK Otterhound Club, said there were now just three breeders in the UK. An estimated 600 of the dogs remain worldwide, but only a fraction of these are suitable for breeding.

"As far as the show world is concerned, we don't have many younger people [involved with] the breed. The established breeders who have been around for 30 years are either dying off or aren't keeping as many hounds," Ms Marston-Pollock told BBC News.

"It's a sign of the times generally that keeping substantially sized hounds is quite expensive."

She added: "We're obviously conscious that we've got a narrow gene pool... we've had a meeting to discuss the possibility of bringing in an outcross with [another breed] to broaden our gene pool."

Such approaches have been successful in the case of Dalmatians, which can be prone to kidney or bladder stones. By outbreeding with a pointer, one Dalmatian breeder was able to remove the trait responsible.

Other vulnerable native dogs include the Dandie Dinmont terrier (98 registrations, down 35% on 2010) and the Skye terrier (44 registrations in 2011, up 19% on the previous year). The Skye terrier was immortalised in the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the 19th Century Edinburgh dog that guarded the grave of its former owner for 14 years.

Breeders say parts of the country's heritage will be lost if native breeds are left to die out.

Ms Kisko said the needs of exotic breeds were poorly understood by many owners. As a result, she said, the Kennel Club had seen an increase in the number of exotic dogs coming in to breed rescue societies when owners realise they are unable to give them the exercise, grooming or other care that they need.

One example is the Afghan hound, which requires about two hours exercise per day and daily grooming. In 2009-2010, 43% of all Afghan hounds registered with the Kennel Club ended up in breed rescue centres.

media captionWhy native dog breeds such as the English setter are being pushed towards extinction

The impact of celebrity may have had a positive effect on at least one native vulnerable breed, the Cardigan Welsh corgi. Registrations shot up by 134% in 2011. This has been put down to the "Royal Wedding effect" and the breed's close relationship with the Pembroke Welsh corgi, owned by the Queen.

Harvey Locke, a former president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) told BBC News: "There are more than 200 pedigree dogs... we want to do everything we can to encourage responsible dog breeding.

"We are obviously against unscrupulous ones who breed [only] for profit. Everybody suffers there: the people who buy the puppies suffer and the dogs suffer." He urged some breeders to move away from selecting for extreme features and called on prospective dog owners to seek advice from veterinary surgeons.

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