HE was a plucky little dog whose devotion to his owner turned his breed into a national icon.
But now time is running out for Greyfriars Bobby lookalikes after it was revealed the Skye Terrier has become as endangered as the tiger and the panda. The terrier sits at number four on the Kennel Club’s list of under-threat breeds and, with only 44 UK registrations in the whole of 2011, experts fear it could die out within a few generations.
The trend is being blamed on decreasing public demand and a drop in fertility caused by a rapidly narrowing gene pool.
However, breeders are determined to turn things around and will meet at Greyfriars Kirk on Sunday, with their terriers, as part of a publicity drive to ensure the country does not lose one of its most enduring symbols.
“The Skyes are out of fashion,” said Gail Marshall, secretary of the Scottish branch of the Skye Terrier Club. “At one stage every close would have one – Queen Victoria had a whole kennel of them and there was one under Mary Queen of Scots’ dress as she was led to her execution.
“But people are now going for these cross-designer breeds – the labradoodles and cockerpoos – and the Skyes are being forgotten about. We need to change that.”
Ms Marshall said around 300 terrier births were required each year to maintain a healthy population, and added that she recently had to bring dogs in from Germany and Finland to enrich the Scottish gene pool.
She said: “We are unable to breed enough litters at the moment – the Skyes are endangered, on a par with tigers. Even if we could get births to between 100 and 200, we’d feel far happier.”
But she warned against uncontrolled breeding and said: “We would not want people to be breeding for the sake of breeding and not having homes for the puppies. It could cause us all sorts of problems if people start to breed dogs that are too close genetically.”
Despite the gloomy picture, enthusiasts are hopeful that all is not lost for the Skye terrier. Cathie McLeod, a breeder for 40 years, said: “None of us wants to be responsible for the demise of this animal so we are pulling together to turn things around.
“There is international cooperation now, every country that has a Skye terrier club is actively working together to raise the profile of the breed. Scottish people are unaware of the critical state the breed is in. We need to draw attention to that and raise awareness.”
A spokeswoman for the Kennel Club said: “The Skye Terrier is one of the most endangered native dog breeds in this country.
“Celebrities, popular culture and fashion play a big part in today’s society and unfortunately, dogs are not immune from our fickle tastes.
“Exotic and foreign dog breeds and handbag dogs have rapidly increased in popularity whilst the lesser-known native breeds have suffered.”
Only between 3500 and 4000 Skye terriers remain in the world today, according to figures from breeding clubs in America and Finland.
This is roughly equal to the current tiger population – thought to number between 3062 and 3948.
The panda is similarly endangered – numbers may be rising but even optimistic estimates indicate there are at most only 3000 left in the wild.
The Skye terrier is more vulnerable than the Asian elephant – a 2003 study estimated its population at between 41,410 and 52,345.
The gorilla is in a stronger position, with 100,000 of the western lowland breed thought to be left in the wild.