Why is the Skye terrier an endangered breed?

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

media captionMembers of the Skye Terriers Club are completing a 42 mile trek on the Isle of Skye to raise awareness of the declining breed of dog

The most loyal dog in popular culture - Greyfriars Bobby - was a Skye terrier, a Scottish breed which has been popular for about 500 years. Why is a breed which used to be a common sight on Scottish streets now on the Kennel Club's list of the most vulnerable native breeds?

Last year, 36,487 Labrador's were registered with the Kennel Club in the UK.

The figure for the Skye Terrier was just 42, the fourth lowest figure for British purebred dogs.

Gail Marshall, secretary of the Scottish branch of the Skye Terriers Club, says there are now just 3,000 to 4,000 of the dogs in the world.

image captionSkye Terrier Greyfriars Bobby has his own statue in Edinburgh

"At one stage every close would have a Skye terrier belonging to somebody," she says.

"Queen Victoria had a kennel full of them and Mary, Queen of Scots had one under her skirt when she was beheaded."

Now the Skye Terrier is as endangered as tigers in the wild, according to Mrs Marshall.

"People are now going for cross-designer breeds, and the Skyes are being forgotten about," she says.

"People just don't know about them."

The club is hosting a 42-mile fundraising walk to raise awareness and support the construction of a life-sized bronze statue of the terrier at Armadale Castle on Skye, where it has historic links.

image captionSkye Terriers gather for walk to Armadale

While it is almost impossible to trace the origin of the breed, the story goes that canine survivors of a wrecked Spanish Armada ship off the west coast island bred with local terriers, producing a strain with a long, silky coat.

Whether or not this story is true, the Skye Terrier is certainly one of the oldest Scottish breeds and was long seen as a wonderful companion.

It is also the subject of one of the country's enduring legends, Greyfriars Bobby the Skye Terrier who became known in 19th-century Edinburgh for supposedly spending 14 years guarding the grave of his owner.

Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, says Skye terriers are good house dogs with a very loyal and friendly character.

She says: "They are very glamorous. Their coats are very attractive. They are a very friendly, nice dog to have around and they are certainly very weather-proof.

"If you are out and about they will not get cold."

So why has the breed fallen out of favour?

image captionCross-breeds such as the labradoodle are becoming very popular

Ms Kisko says: "Much of this is about the profile of the dog, whether or not people are aware that the breeds exist.

"Some of the problems we have with the vulnerable breeds is that people have simply forgotten that they are there."

The same is true of the Dandie Dinmont terrier, another Scottish breed which used to be extremely popular but is now considered a vulnerable breed.

Ms Kisko says the Dandie Dinmont, an "intelligent small dog which loves children", has been forgotten despite smaller "handbag" dogs showing an increase in popularity.

She is also concerned that some dog breeds such as the Staffordshire Bull Terrier had become popular too fast.

"If you get any which quickly increases in popularity you get people breeding far too many of them," she says.

"They might be simply cashing in on their commercial popularity and not be worrying about whether those homes are actually suited for the breed."

Ms Kisco says another breed growing in popularity, the Siberian husky, is not suitable as a family pet.

image captionThe labrador and the poodle are being crossed by some breeders

"The Siberian is completely unsuited but because it is very attractive people are buying them in large numbers and they end up in rescue centres and are very difficult to rehome."

Designers breeds such as the labradoodle - a crossbred created by crossing the Labrador Retriever and the Poodle - have become very fashionable.

Mrs Marshall says this is another reason why traditional breeds such as the Skye terrier are being marginalised.

Ms Kisko, whose organisation does not register cross-breeds, says: "The designer crosses such as the labradoodle and the cockapoo (a Cocker Spaniel and a miniature poodle) are proving to be very popular these days and that is all on the pretext that they will be automatically healthier than the breeds they come from, which is patently untrue."

She says people should do more research before buying a dog, checking out some of the British native breeds which have been popular pets for centuries.

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