Duff Hart-Davies: Nationalism vs naturalism: does it matter which dogs we buy?

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The Independent Online

There's no arguing with the figures. Many traditional British breeds of dog have indeed been declining, swamped in public favour by non-indigenous breeds; some seem near to vanishing-point. The Cardigan corgi, for instance, is becoming scarce, in spite of the Queen's patronage, and there are only four breeders left in Wales. The Sussex spaniel and the Sealyham terrier are others on the danger-list.

The question of how we should react to this trend is rather less clear-cut. The latest issue of Country Life makes no secret of its feelings about the ever-rising tide of filthy foreigners. "Rally round!" the venerable magazine cries. "Breed British, or risk losing part of our inheritance."

Such exhortations are futile. Most owners are as capricious as their pets, and any attempt to make them more patriotic in canine selection is doomed. Certain facts need to be borne in mind, among them that our most popular breeds, such as labradors are not British at all. If any British breed becomes seriously threatened, owners will pool their resources to save it. But I see no harm in importing exotic types. Provided they are kept under control, dogs do little damage; even if they are turned loose by callous owners, they are generally soon rounded up because they cannot fend for themselves, unlike the big cats - pumas, lynxes and leopards - which have taken up residence in the wilder parts of the realm.

Nor are exotic dogs like alien species of wildlife, which can cause havoc if established in the countryside. The most pernicious import has been the grey squirrel, brought here as an amusing novelty in the 1860s. The damage this creature has caused is beyond calculation, hounding out native red squirrels and destroying millions of pounds worth of timber.

Mink, American crayfish and muntjac deer have all got loose and become a menace in their various ways. The animal now exercising many minds is the wolf. A few enthusiasts have plans to return it (and possibly the bear and the lynx) to the Highlands, in an attempt to restore the original fauna, a remote but maybe not impossible idea.

As a labrador owner, I prefer dogs to be useful, whatever their origin. Any creature which will find game, guard your premises, sniff out drugs or weapons, or guide a blind person, any breed that enjoys such jobs is far preferable to some dimwit such as a dalmatian, whose only function is to look beautiful.

At present, my Jemima is curled up on the sitting-room sofa, looking as soft as a pool of black treacle; but if you had seen her bring a wounded fallow buck to bay in the middle of a river at dawn the other morning, you would never again criticise her, either for being lazy, or for deriving from a far country.