|The English Setter - on the road to nowhere?|
Soon after Pedigree Dogs Exposed, the Kennel Club announced a five-year commitment to fund a new Genetics Centre at the Animal Health Trust (AHT) in Newmarket - its mission to continue developing new DNA tests, to develop new breeding tools/strategies and to assess genetic diversity in KC breeds.
Overall, the partnership has been fruitful. Much-heralded Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) to help Cavalier breeders breed away from syringomyelia and mitral valve disease may have failed to appear (and would seem to be moth-balled due to lack of breeder support) but EBVs for hip and elbow dysplasia are on the way.
Mate Select, another product of the partnership, has been a success and will get better - a boon to owners, breeders (and to television producers checking breeder claims re inbreeding).
So what about the promised assessment of genetic diversity and, in particular, a commitment to look at the effective population sizes of individual breeds (essentially a measure of genetic diversity)?
Last August, the Kennel Club Genetics Centre at the AHT published what it called its "mid-term report" marking the half-way point in the five-year partnership between the KC and the AHT and here's what it said:
Population structures and inbreeding
Inbreeding is one of the risk factors for inherited disease in purebred dogs. It is important to understand how the population structure of breeds may be contributing to an increased rate of inbreeding. Analysis of the population structure and rate of inbreeding for all 211 Kennel Club recognised breeds is currently underway.
Kennel Club pedigree records are being used to calculate the rate of inbreeding for each breed over the last 30 years. The rates show how fast inbreeding is accumulating in a breed and indicates the effective population size. This gives a measure of how many individuals are contributing genetically to the population and is a measure of the size of the gene pool in any UK breed.
The analysis also examines how much close inbreeding there is in the breed, and produces other descriptive statistics such as how many dogs are used for breeding and their average number of offspring.
So far we have analysed 38 breeds and published results for the following:
Bearded Collie, Bloodhound, Great Dane, Irish Red and White Setter, Miniature Bull Terrier, Otterhound and Tibetan Terrier.
Generally, our results show that most breeds have an effective population size below the recommended minimum to maintain a sustainably low rate of inbreeding. In many cases there is evidence that inbreeding rates could be much lower, if appropriate breeding strategies were adopted.
Such strategies might include reducing the degree of line breeding used, managing the use of popular sires to reduce their future impact on inbreeding, and using more individuals as sires and dams.
Now the paragraph I have bolded above was an exciting one for me. And that's because, in 2008, Imperial College London, using Kennel Club data, published a paper (Calboli et al) that examined the population structure of 10 KC breeds. In particular, it assessed the individual breeds' effective population size. Bearing in mind that anything lower than 100 is considered critical by conservationists and anything under 50 as being a one-way ticket to extinction, here is what Imperial found:
Akita Inu - 45
Boxer - 45
Bulldog - 48
Chow Chow - 50
Rough Collie - 33
Golden Retriever - 67
Greyhound - 17
German Shepherd - 76
Labrador - 114
English Springer Spaniel - 72
When I first saw this data, I was horrified, believing it had to be an enormous wake-up call for everyone in dog-breeding. In fact, its publication (in May 2008) changed the course of the first Pedigree Dogs Exposed. And yet despite the Kennel Club being co-authors and the findings known to the them for months before PDE, there was no mention of it anywhere by the Kennel Club - and certainly no obvious action had been taken to address the paper's concerns.
In fact, Pedigree Dogs Exposed commisisoned the Imperial researchers to look at a further three breeds for us - the Flatcoated Retriever, Pug and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the figures for them were:
Flatcoat - 52
Pug - 38
CKCS - 68
A big worry.
So the announcement last August that the KC Genetics Centre had studied a further 38 breeds and published the results for eight of them was of real interest. I called the AHT to ask for a copy of the published findings - to be told that the results were going to be published on the KC website in a couple of weeks' time.
Nothing appeared. I left it for a while but when, by December, there was still no sign of the findings, I contacted Caroline Kisko at the Kennel Club who replied: ".... unfortunately these are not yet available. There are some 48 breeds in hand at present and many of these will be going on the KC web site soon but I can’t be certain exactly when."
I chased a couple more times before we finished Pedigree Dogs Exposed - Three Years On with no success. I presumed it was because the findings were dreadful and that the KC didn't want us highlighting them in the film.
Three days before the film, I got a call from a writer for the Sunday Times telling me he'd got an exclusive from the Kennel Club regarding these figures, asking for my input and for contacts in various breeds. I gave him both - in exchange for the data. And here's what I wrote to him in an email:
I have battled - and failed - since last September to get the genetic diversity data that you have managed to get. That's when the KC released a report which indicated that the data had been published.
To put it into some kind of perspective, what this data reveals is that these five breeds are more criticially endangered genetically than the Giant Panda.
If I'd known these figures even a week ago, I would have scrambled to get them in Pedigree Dogs Exposed - Three Years on because they could not be worse news for dogs.
In effect, 140 years of Kennel Club breeding has brought these breeds - and others - to their knees. The data should be an enormous wake-up call that something must be done before it is too late. We do have a precious resource in our pedigree dogs but we are frittering them away from being wedded to the idea that the more pure dogs are, the better. We know this isn't true, and that trapping dogs within ever-decreasing gene pools is destroying them.
The frustrating thing is that it doesn't have to be that way. We now have the knowledge to do it differently.
The story appeared in the Sunday Times two days later. It wasn't much more than a re-hash of the KC announcement that was officially released on the same day and it contained no mention of the role that KC breeding practices have played in reducing some breeds to genetic ghosts of their former selves. It was way too late for us to include the new findings in the film - which aired the next day.
So the KC has finally released some of the data, but not all of it. And as the announcement seems to have got lost in the general melee around the film and then Crufts, I am returning to it now.
As suspected, it does make grim reading. (NB: the figures relate to the UK population of these breeds only).
There are five breeds with effective population sizes under 30. They are:
Irish Red and White Setter - 28
English Setter - 27
Manchester Terrier - 20
Lancashire Heeler - 25
Otterhound - 29
The KC has also released the figures for five breeds they have found so far with effective population sizes over 100:
Saluki - 107
Newfoundland - 181
American Cocker Spaniel 189
Standard Poodle - 377
Bernese Mountain Dog - 762.
I confess that I am totally thrown by the effective population size found for the BMD - it seems impossibly high and so does the Standard Poodle's given the Wycliffe bottleneck. I will ask the AHT for some input.
And where are the others? The mid-term report mentioned Bearded Collie, Bloodhound, Great Dane, Miniature Bull Terrier and Tibetan Terrier. And what about the other 30 or so breeds they say they've looked at? Hopefully they'll be be forthcoming soon.
Meanwhile, the KC says it will be talking to the breed clubs of the most compromised breeds about outcrossing. In fact, the Irish Kennel Club has already endorsed an outcross programme between the IRWS and the working Red Setter
How will this go down with the breed clubs? I was heartened to see Judith Ashworth, the health rep for the Otterhound Club say: “This new research, in addition to the World Health Survey of the entire breed, which we carried out with the Kennel Club and the Animal Health Trust in 2009, is crucial in helping us to develop breeding strategies that will protect the health of the breed that we love.
“Outcrossing is certainly one option that we are very keen to look at, because we do need to increase the number of dogs that are contributing genetically to the very small population of dogs within our breed. We look forward to working with the Kennel Club and the Animal Health Trust to find solutions that will protect our breed in the future.”
I imagine there will be more resistance from others. But to hear the KC talk so proactively about outcrossing as one means of increasing genetic diveristy is encouraging. Let's hope the talk is followed by some action. And let's hope it doesn't trigger yet more accusations that the Kennel Club has been infiltrated by animal rights activists.
The picture at the top of this post, by the way, is of a young field-bred English Setter from Ireland that my rescue rehomed last year. She is called Orla and she is beautiful. She is spayed now but it's a reminder that there is a potential genetic resource outside of the confines of the Kennel Club without necessarily having to outcross to a different breed.