The Labrador has regained its place as Britain’s favourite, but David Tomlinson is concerned to see some gundog breeds are in decline

The Labrador is again the most popular gundog breed, having regained its number one slot in 2019.

The Frenchie reigned at the top of Britain’s pedigree league table for just a year. In 2018, 36,785 French bulldog puppies were registered with the Kennel Club (KC), but last year that had fallen back to 33,661. It’s still a huge number, especially considering that there are few breeds as flawed both physically and genetically, but I suspect that it has hit peak popularity.


popular gundog breed 2019

Click table to view larger version. Table via The Kennel Club

Puppy registrations falling

Intriguingly, the Kennel Club’s figures for last year reveal a sharp fall in the number of almost all breeds of puppies registered with it. Though the Labrador may have regained its place at the top of the chart, it did so with 35,347 puppies, down by 1,179 from the year before.

Only three breeds that featured in the top 20 in both years showed an increase — the miniature smooth-haired dachshund (up from 7,008 to 8,375), the golden retriever (from 7,794 to 8,422) and the beagle (from 2,094 in 2018 to 2,177).

I’ve always liked golden retrievers, though I suspect that it’s purely pet goldens that are enjoying a slight surge in popularity, not working 
dogs. The gentle rise of the beagle 
is intriguing. Though the increase 
in numbers may be modest, it comes at a time when almost every other breed is declining.

I remember Peter Moxon — who wrote about gundogs in Shooting Times for 40 years — declaring that he wouldn’t wish a beagle on his worst enemy. Peter did house a pack of beagles at his kennels, so had 
plenty of first-hand experience of the breed. Perhaps the modern pet 
beagle has lost some of pack instinct that it had 50 years ago. I’d certainly rather have a beagle than a French bulldog any day.

sleeping cocker spaniel

The top 20 included five breeds of dog, including cocker spaniels

Popular gundog breed listing

In both 2018 and 2019, the top 20 included five breeds of gundogs. The cocker retained its number three slot, though the number of registrations was down by over 2,000 to 21,663. The bulldog comfortably beat the English springer for fourth place, with 9,922 registrations compared with the springer’s 8,638.

The pug suffered a considerable decline in popularity to go from sixth in 2018 to ninth last year, allowing the golden retriever to rise to sixth. The only other gundog in the top 20 is the Hungarian vizsla, in at number 16 for the second year in a row.

Irish water spaniel

The Irish water spaniel can hunt, point and retrieve, but it’s not an easy dog to train

Three gundog breeds in decline

There are less than eight gundog breeds in the KC’s list of vulnerable native breeds, three of which had their worst year in a decade. Numbers of Irish red-and-white setter, Irish water spaniel and Welsh springer registered puppies all fell sharply.

Both Sussex and field spaniels experienced modest increases that are unlikely to be of long-term significance. Clumber spaniels were down from 280 puppies in 2018 to only 175 last year — a one-year blip, 
or a significant fall in popularity?

Clumber spaniel in sugar beet

Numbers of Clumber spaniels were down

As with all statistics, it’s easy to read too much into them, but they do provide a general indication of the pedigree dog market. The fact that the overall number of registrations continues to decline is a source of concern to the Kennel Club, for they provide the bulk of its income.

It’s easy to find an explanation: the huge rise of popularity of so-called designer cross-breeds that can’t be registered. My observations suggest that cockerpoos are almost certainly more popular than Labradors, but any statistician would be quick to point out that this is merely an observation and certainly not a fact.

I rarely encounter either French or English bulldogs on my walks and would even go as far as to say they are rarities. This, of course, isn’t true. It’s simply that they aren’t the sort 
of dogs that go for walks where I do, or perhaps they don’t go for walks at all.

American cocker

The Kennel Club issues export pedigrees for British-bred dogs and it’s fascinating to see the statistics to find out where they go to. Perhaps the most useless piece of information 
I can pass on is that two American cockers were exported in 2019 and one went to French Polynesia. In contrast, some 269 Labradors were exported to almost 30 different countries, from Belarus to Japan, though the US took by far the most, 125, with Germany second on 24. 
In all, some 543 gundogs were exported, of 29 breeds, including three Hungarian vizslas that went back to Hungary and one Brittany 
that travelled to France.

Though it’s easy to find export statistics, I’ve failed to find any similar figures for puppies imported into the UK for sale here. My suspicion is that they far exceed the number we export. I’m all in favour of importing gundogs from overseas to add fresh blood to our lines, almost all of which are becoming increasingly inbred, at least according to the Kennel Club’s COI (coefficient of inbreeding) figures.

Worryingly, many illegal imports take place, with French bulldogs, pugs, English bulldogs and dachshunds the most frequently smuggled breeds.

According to the British Veterinary Association, these dogs often suffer from disease, health problems and poor socialisation. The legislation on pet travel to and from Europe changes on 1 January 2021: whether it will stop puppy smuggling is debatable.