Looking after our vulnerable breeds
If you’ve followed this column over the years you’ll know one of my recurring themes is our vulnerable native breeds. Some years I’ve written with a degree of optimism that we might be moving to a more secure future for these breeds. There have been useful initiatives but they have ultimately proved to be false dawns, rare injections of enthusiasm, before we’ve slunk back into fatalism and rank complacency.
I can understand individual breeders plodding on just doing today what they did yesterday. A breeder’s immediate focus is on the next show or the next day in the field. It’s very hard for even the best of them to look much beyond their next litter. I can forgive any individual for thinking the future of the breed is just too big a responsibility for them to burden themselves with. I can even forgive those who dismiss any concerns and insist all is well. Anyone who’s been around a breed that’s survived in tiny numbers for decades can get sucked in to thinking their breed can survive in tiny numbers forever more.
I find breed club’s attitudes harder to forgive. There are some notable exceptions but most seem more determined to keep their breed in the ‘right’ hands than get behind any attempt to popularise it. It’s almost as if they wear the pitiful numbers of puppies produced like a badge of honour. Something akin to a bunker mentality with the perverse boast that, “no one likes us, we don’t care”. Too many VNB clubs are obsessed with the idea their breeds are especially exclusive, esoteric and precious. Their breed mustn’t be sullied by anything as vulgar as a viable numbers.
Too many VNB breeders and breed clubs either don’t accept their breed is in trouble or do accept the problem but can’t see how they can possibly resolve it. Support groups have come and gone – the Vulnerable Native Breeds Trust, British Heritage Dog Breeds and a range of ad hoc groups trying to raise the profile of our rare native breeds. They may have arrived all bright and bushy tailed but all have failed to gain the momentum to drive long term change. It’s become more than a bit depressing.
Canine Gene Bank is a different approach. Not overtly trying to increase the popularity of our VNBs – just doing something to protect their long term existence. Collecting and preserving the semen from VNBs with the ultimate aim of making that semen available in breeding programmes. It’s an idea that’s routinely used in preserving vulnerable wild animal species and has had a role in the success of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in preserving heritage breeds of farm animal. It’s starting to be used in programmes to preserve rare dog breeds elsewhere in the world. There’s good reason to think it may just offer some hope to VNBs here.
The leading lights of the Canine Gene Bank are big names in the world of dogs and more than capable of fighting their corner. They certainly don’t need me to champion their cause. That does not stop me being deeply disappointed to learn the Kennel Club is refusing to financially support their venture. In fact the KC proved unable to give Canine Gene Bank any indication as to whether they found merit in their idea, not so much as a regret they couldn’t help and best wishes for the future.
Why am I so saddened by the KC’s refusal to put its money where its mouth is in support of VNBs? It’s certainly not because I’m not hung up on the issue of breed purity. I think the dog world has been all too quick to close stud books and all too reluctant to open them – even a crack. The resistance and hostility towards outcrossing when trying to sort out narrow genetic health problems flies in the face of logic. I’ve never understood those who claim breed character is so fragile and elusive a flower that a single outcross is enough to destroy it forever.
I’m more than happy to go much further than most in advocating outcrossing as a perfectly legitimate way to counter the almost inevitable loss of genetic diversity and build-up of genetic disease associated with pedigree breeding. Outcrossing is a normal part of pedigree breeding of other animals – why do dogs have to be so different?
I see some controlled outcrossing as inevitable for the long term survival of our VNBs. That doesn’t mean we can disregard any attempt to preserve the genetic diversity we still have in the existing VNB populations. We have to look beyond the traditional approaches to breeding if we are to give our breeds the best chance. Seamen banks available to future breeders can only be a positive contribution. Keeping old genetic material doesn’t remove the hard choices about introducing new genes from related breeds but it does give breeders in the future more options.
National kennel clubs around the world are focused on promoting those breeds that originated in their country. Our KC has never been able to take this fully on board. To some extent our truly native breeds are the victims of history. British dog breeders have developed so many foreign breeds for the field and the ring that we’ve lost track of what is and isn’t a genuine native breed. That doesn’t explain the KCs rush to recognise scores of ‘new’ breeds from all over the world. It sometimes seems like Clarges street is keener to encourage yet another big shaggy beast from Eastern Europe than get fully behind our own native breeds.
Yes, VNBs do get some help at the margin. Native breeds are promoted on the KC’s select a puppy webpage and there are bits and bobs done to help them in the show ring. The most recent attempt at a leg up is the Vulnerable Native Breed Competition. It’s a good idea, not least as an attempt to foster some sense of community and common purpose among VNB exhibitors. My main gripe is the convoluted structure. Is it a have-a-go event for ordinary exhibitors or a prestige competition for the elite? In theory a dog winning loads of AVNSC classes at open shows can make it all the way to the grand final at Crufts. In practice the usual suspects who dominate the championship shows rack up all the points. Ordinary exhibitors may conclude it’s just another gong for the big boys.
What would I do? I’d start by having the KC take responsibility for our native breeds. I fear for the future if Clarges Street ducks its leadership role and leaves it to breed clubs, individual breeders or well-intentioned groups. I know the old adage that the KC doesn’t breed dogs. I know the equally old adage that telling dog breeders what to do will just provoke them do the exact opposite. Whatever the difficulties, the KC must map the way forward and provide a framework for willing breeders to help bring our rare native breeds back to a viable future.
In the meantime I hear the KC has a bit of spare cash at the moment. Some may think a gene bank for rare breeds that originated in these islands would be an even better use of resources than smarter offices and a shooting estate in Northumberland.