Imagine the scenario. You are a military man who retires at 40. Able-bodied, cushioned by a small army pension and the income from a rural estate in west Wales, you turn your back on soldiering. You remain through and through a sportsman. Across your peaceful acres foxes, badgers and otters carve their busy paths. In barns and hedgerows rats and rabbits run amok. How to rout out so much quarry? Only one way presents itself to the resourceful mid-Victorian landowner: breed your own terrier. It is 1848. Meet Captain John Tucker Edwardes.
Edwardes knew what he wanted: a sporting little dog, low to the ground, tenacious, brave and mostly white in colour — in every way a characteristically 19th-century British ideal. He threw into the melting-pot four breeds of terrier and a strain of corgi. The result? The Sealyham terrier, named after the Captain’s estate near Haverfordwest.
Once Sealyhams were among the world’s favourite dogs. High-profile owners included Alfred Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, Princess Margaret and Bette Davis. Last year, out of nearly 40,000 terrier puppies registered with the Kennel Club, Sealyhams accounted for 43. Only the Skye terrier — that long-fringed Yorkie lookalike which claims Greyfriars Bobby among its number — fared worse. Captain Edwardes, of course, is long dead. The statistics suggest his doughty little dog may shortly follow him to oblivion.
The time has come for some canine chauvinism. The nation’s dog fanciers need to start buying British. In December 2006, the Kennel Club issued a call to arms. Its list of vulnerable native breeds contained 24 British breeds reporting fewer than 300 puppy registrations a year. All were working dogs. Three years on, all remain on the list.
Everyone knows that patterns of British life have changed. The fashion for working dogs was killed partly by new farming techniques (cattle-herding Cardigan Welsh corgi, anyone?) and partly by the demise of the sporting estate. But is this really a reason to turn tail and embrace the shih tzu and lhasa apso, which together currently account for a very healthy annual registration in excess of 10,000 puppies? The Irish water spaniel, in crisis with only 101 registrations in 2008, is every bit as curly as the bichon frise, which managed almost 3,000 puppies in the same period. It looks like a purposeful poodle in a Cleo Laine wig and was once described as ‘the all-round shooting man’s complete companion’.
What lies at the root of the problem? It would be easy to suggest that the majority of today’s gunmen confine themselves to sink estates and school compounds, regions where retrieval is not an issue. Ergo, the working dog, trained to flush out and recover the kill, becomes redundant. But the figures tell a different story. For the past two years — and presumably every year since league tables began — the list of Britain’s favourite breeds has been topped by the labrador, followed by cocker and springer spaniels, dogs which have successfully made the transition from workers to walkers. More than 45,000 labrador puppies were registered in Britain last year. Freak physical defects notwithstanding, each is at heart a four-legged retrieval operative with a powerful sense of smell. Who knows, with a carrying wind and the television switched off, every one of them might be trained to put to flight ptarmigan or woodcock.
But such atavistic feather-fancying does not define these short-coated symbols of British hearth and home. For the most part they are simply pets. What a pity the same fate has not befallen the neglected Gordon setter. With their black-and-tan coats like molten liquorice splashed with cooking sherry, these are handsome and intelligent if occasionally headstrong dogs. Their loyal but limited following ensures they just about avoid endangered status.
Canine fashion is consistently irrational. Yesterday’s Kerry blue terrier is today’s miniature schnauzer. While the former has seen its popularity plummet, the latter is a fixture in the annual top 20. Physically the two breeds show striking similarities. For the present, the German ratter has trounced its Irish doppelganger.
Looks are only one factor in dog faddism. As with weather girls and new cars, perceptions of beauty are more important than any objective gold standard. The clumber spaniel — that lumbering lemon and white teddy bear, its square muzzle as blunt as an old-fashioned rolling pin — was once acclaimed ‘the most handsomest animal this kingdom ever produced’. Hear, hear. Today they’re 20 times closer to extinction than the Rottweiler.
With its pompom topknot and elongated body, the Dandie Dinmont is a curious-looking dog. Some owners insist it is the most ancient of all pure terrier breeds; others, with greater accuracy, that it is Britain’s only dog to take its name from a literary character (Farmer Dinmont in Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering). Perhaps Scott is part of the problem. The Dandie’s apparently terminal decline mirrors Scott’s own vanished hold on the popular imagination. Certainly Dandies are no odder in appearance than the super-fashionable pug, which last year registered almost 5,000 puppies. While there is currently a pug on every street corner, Dandie Dinmonts are about as widespread as well-thumbed copies of Quentin Durward on Polzeath beach.
My point? For anyone concerned with this country’s cultural heritage, the dramatic decline in the popularity of our native breeds is cause for concern and regret. Britain is not only a nation of dog lovers, but of dog breeders and users. In abandoning older native breeds we diminish aspects of our own national inheritance. We also trivialise noble animals by disregarding their purpose and reinventing highly effective pest control units as strolling companions. I, for one, am not beguiled by Manchester terriers but acknowledge that their history — Manchesters were the lethal weapon employed by Queen Victoria’s royal rat-catcher Jack Black — would earn them official protection were they a crumbling building or a painting threatened with export. Nor do I crave the basso profundo vociferousness of a shaggy-haired otterhound next to me on the sofa. But I regret that a proportion of the 40,000 cocker and springer spaniel puppies registered every year aren’t Sussex spaniels. These shoulder-rolling, chocolate-coated lovelies have the same downward-slanting eyelids that senior Cabinet members once apparently found irresistible in Mrs Thatcher. Devoid of our former leader’s bullishness, and ever willing to pick up the lame ducks others have dropped, they are among the only dogs able to approximate a smile. Last year, the Kennel Club registered only 56 Sussex terrier puppies.
Despite the Kennel Club’s best efforts and sporadic, invariably whimsical outpourings in the popular press, recovery remains a distant goal. This year, an American-owned, Canadian-bred Sealyham won Crufts, spurring increased interest in the minority breed. But Crufts — no longer televised by the Beeb — has become an exercise in preaching to the converted. Something more dramatic is required. This Christmas, let us all pray that a savvy breeder offers Katie Price a bloodhound, a Lancashire heeler or a Glen of Imaal terrier puppy. A film starring Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t go amiss either. And me? I’m currently looking for a replacement for my short-lived (ahem, Chinese) Pekingese, today one of the nation’s least popular toy dogs. The Sussex spaniel is ahead by a whisker. Suggestions on a postcard, please.
For information on vulnerable national breeds, visit www.thekennelclub.org.uk.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 28, 2009