Canine cleansing: how Britain's bulldog breeds are being squeezed out by fashionable foreigners

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The Independent Online

Some dogs may, literally, have had their day. A number of traditional British breeds are said to be in danger of dying out in the face of competition from their more fashionable and exotic foreign rivals.

Pedigree corgis, terriers, collies and setters are in serious decline, while numbers of imported 'designer' dogs, like Tibetan shih-tzus - which are often flaunted by celebrities - are steadily rising. At the other end of the scale, registrations of German Rottweilers, the favourite dog of both the career criminal and the security-conscious rich, have doubled in 10 years.

Figures from the Kennel Club, which says that it promotes "the general improvement of dogs", have been collated by Country Life magazine. They showed that two thirds of the 60 recognised native British breeds have suffered a sharp drop in numbers during the past decade. This is at a time when registrations of all puppies is constantly rising, by about 15 per cent last year.

Country Life warned that some traditional British breeds were facing an unprecedented crisis, saying: "Loyalty is something dogs do well. But are we being equally loyal to our faithful dog breeds? As a dog-loving nation, we have become besotted with the exotic and, while a cornucopia of breeds with unpronounceable names curls up on our sofas, many of our wonderful British breeds are falling from favour. The thought of breeds, such as the chippy wire-haired fox terrier or the big-hearted Cardigan corgi, becoming extinct is a sad indictment of our failure to keep faith with British dogs.''

The magazine recommended a "buy British" campaign, saying that the Kennel Club, which has been criticised for allowing too many imported breeds onto its 200-strong list, had failed to do anything to safeguard canine gene pools. It noted the success of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, set up to protect the national livestock, had ensured that ancient breeds of sheep, pigs and cattle have survived.

The figures showed that the number of Yorkshire terriers being registered had dropped by almost 70 per cent to just 4,500 last year. Old English sheepdogs have fallen by more than 60 per cent, while the rough collie had also dropped by 58 per cent. Lesser-known breeds, such as the Welsh corgi, the Sealyham terrier and Sussex and field spaniels were in serious danger of dying out, and were among 12 such dogs that logged fewer than 100 registrations of new puppies each last year. But there were almost 6,000 Rottweiler puppies, a figure which had doubled in 10 years, and more than 3,000 puppies each of the shih-tzu and its relative the lhasa apso being registered last year.

Britain's most popular dog for many years and regularly topping the list of registrations was the labrador retriever - with almost 36,000 registrations last year -which is classed as a foreign breed since it originates in Canada. Two other breeds popular in Britain and classed as foreign are the German shepherd and the boxer, which logged 14,000 and 9,000 registrations respectively last year. The most popular pure British breed was the cocker spaniel.

The Kennel Club is now conducting research to establish which of the breeds registering less than 300 puppies a year are most vulnerable. A spokesman said: "We have read the Country Life article with interest. But given that registrations are still going up overall, we do not think there is a decline in British dogs. [But] we will work alongside responsible breeders and clubs to ensure that traditional British breeds do not die out.'' The popularity of small, fluffy dogs such as the shih-tzu, which can weigh only a few pounds when mature, has accelerated after celebrities, such as former the Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and actress and singer Martine McCutcheon, have been seen sporting them as they would a new handbag. They have become particularly numerous among the fashion world. Both the shih-tzu and the lhasa apso originate in Tibet.

Valerie Goodwin, the secretary of the Manchu Shih Tzu Society - with 250 members - rejected suggestions that the popularity of the shih-tzu was responsible for the decline of British breeds. She said: "These things go in fashion, don't they? In 20 years' time every one might want a terrier. But shih-tzus are good dogs for people who live in confined spaces and don't want gun dogs, like spaniels, or big dogs, like labradors. The shih-tzu doesn't really need taking out for walks.''

She said the dogs had grown in popularity in the past 20 years, even though they had been first introduced into Britain in the 1930s after the Chinese lifted a ban on their export. "They are nice little people; more like people than dogs," she said. "They all have their different personalities and can argue with you. I've got 16 at the moment.''

The dogs offer a similar cachet for the fashion conscious or celebrity as the poodle - often with its sculptured hair - did in the 1950s. But both trends illustrate how certain types of dog have fallen in and out of fashion. In the late 19th century, the elegant Dalmatian - immortalised in the book 101 Dalmatians - was the dog to be seen out and about with, while the 1970s saw the peak in popularity of the long-haired Afghan hound, the canine of choice for the equally long-haired hippie. More recently, "macho" dogs, such as pitbulls, have earned a poor reputation after being used with aggressive intent by many people, some of whom bore a passing resemblance to their dogs.

By the same token, many of the British breeds singled out by Country Life are largely country working dogs and bred to become the mainstay of the farm, field and shooting party. The Queen, seen by many as the ultimate countrywoman, is forever associated with corgis.

Dr Mason Minns, the chairman of the Sussex Spaniel Association, said the breed's numbers had always been small. The breed, of which only 82 were registered last year, is the original spaniel, from which others such as the cocker and springer were bred.

"It's not surprising that it has stayed small in numbers, because it is a short-legged, heavily built dog that would not be everyone's first choice. They are not really inner-city dogs because they are gun dogs that need a lot of space and grooming. Their numbers go up and down, but we are keeping them going.''

Both Dr Minns and Mrs Goodwin agreed that the demise of some traditional breeds may simply be an indication of the decline of a certain type of outdoors, rural life and the class of people associated with it, as they are replaced by a more complex and urbanised society. And one in which man's best friends continue to be simply a reflection of themselves.