How farmers aim to save ancient animal breeds from extinction

A A A

There are just a few thousand tigers left in the wild, and mountain gorillas are down to a few hundred. With figures like these, it's easy to overlook those less exotic animals closer to home that are facing extinction. But, while they might not grab the headlines, the plight of native British livestock breeds such as the bagot goat, the British lop pig, the boreray sheep and even the original Aberdeen angus beef cattle is no less critical.

Over the last century, 26 native British breeds became extinct, according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), which strives to monitor and maintain the health of original British livestock strains. And although the last of these, the Lincolnshire curly coat pig, died out the year before the trust was formed in 1973, many more remain on the critical list.

"Until agriculture became established as a semi-scientific business in the late 18th century, there weren't any recognisable breeds, just types of animal that had adapted over time to their environment," explains the RBST chairman and co-founder Lawrence Alderson, who defines an original - or native - breed as one where documentary evidence proves its continued existence over many years and DNA profiling shows that there has been no dilution of the original bloodline by cross-breeding.

"Industrial development and artificial selection, however, made certain types of animal flourish and others disappear - not always because they weren't economically viable. Sometimes it was just down to changing fashion," he says.

The Irish moiled, for example, is a breed of cattle once widely bred in Ireland for milk and beef. It fell from fashion when farmers were required to keep records, as the effort to fill in the forms wasn't thought worth the value of their yield. Then, over the last century, it was superseded by new, more specialised breeds until the 1970s when fewer than 30 breeding females remained. The breed is currently designated as "endangered" by the RBST.

One of the conservationists' early successes was the seaweed-eating North Ronaldsay sheep, which was originally found on just one island in the Orkneys. Faced with the threat of contamination of shorelines by North Sea oil exploration and disease, a number were relocated to the mainland to spread the geographical risk. It's an approach replicated across a number of other rare breeds that also proved a useful insurance policy at the time of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in early 2001.

"All rare breeds have their own particular story," says David Watson, the manager of Wimpole Home Farm south-west of Cambridge, home to five breeds of rare cattle, six of sheep, and to rare pig breeds including the Gloucester old spot and Tamworth. "Shetland cattle, for example, were small enough to fit into rowing boats and used as draught animals, but when regular ferry services began linking the islands and engines replaced animal power their popularity declined."

Sue Jones began producing the award-winning Llanboidy cheese in the mid-Eighties from her west-Wales farm, Cilowen Uchaf, with milk from her herd of rare red poll cattle. "I love my red poll but I'm a businesswoman," she says. "They produce less milk than other cows, but because the red poll is an older breed the milk is higher quality and tastier. Today, I'm no longer producing run-of-the-mill things but a premium product that's high quality and with a great story behind it."

It's this formula that a growing number of farmers and local producers are working to exploit as they make and market an increasingly diverse array of rare-breed products, ranging from meat and dairy produce through to wool and woven goods.

"Most are still sold locally, but interest is growing as consumers are more interested in what goes into the products they buy, and where they were made," asserts Sue Blacker, the owner of the Natural Fibre Company, which spins wool from rare breeds.

They also have an important role to play in environmental conservation. "Conservation grazing is growing in popularity," David Watson says. "Rare breeds can be used to naturally manage the environment." Putting pigs out into overgrown woodland, for example, can naturally clear a whole area of brambles or bracken. Rare breeds are also far better suited to this kind of work than intensively farmed animals, as they are used to staying out all year round.

Economics, then, has an important role to play in saving rare British livestock breeds, but for Marcus Bates, the chief executive of the British Pig Association, it can be a double-edged sword. "The challenge is to find a role for rare breeds that doesn't rely on charity or sentiment," he explains. "Proof of the success we've had is the growing interest of supermarkets eager to stock rare- and pedigree-breed pork. However, with the most at-risk breeds having fewer than 500 remaining sows typically spread across a hundred different pig breeders, it's a virtually impossible situation: there just isn't the supply to meet demand."

One way for supermarkets to have their own share of rare-breed products is to sell produce made from rare breeds crossed with a more commonly available one. The Aberdeen Angus widely available in supermarkets across the land, for example, is not meat from the original, pure-blood native Aberdeen Angus population, the RBST's Alderson points out, but from cross-breeds.

Bates is not convinced. "I imagine we will end up with supermarkets selling some sort of cross-bred rare-breed-branded meat," he says. "It risks ending up damaging those breeders dedicated to growing pure-bred stocks who rely on selling their produce to the public. These producers rely on farmers' markets and farm shops, whose very future is already being threatened as supermarkets move to stage farmers' markets of their own."

Details of buying products from premium breeds at www.rbst.org.uk. For the British Pig Associations pedigree-pork information service go to www.britishpigs.org.uk/pork.htm

Rare British livestock

CATTLE

* Aberdeen Angus Arguably the best known and most numerous beef-cattle breed in the world, the native pure-blood Aberdeen Angus (which has not been cross-bred) has fewer than 150 female breeders left in the UK.

* Chillingham A feral breed that has roamed around Chillingham Park, Northumberland, for 700 years. Fewer than 150 females remain.

* White park The Chillingham's cousin can be traced back to 10th-century Wales. Just before the Second World War a small number were shipped to the USA for safe keeping. Today there are an estimated 750 breeding females left.

PIGS

* Tamworth Britain's only red-coloured breed of pig. Until 200 to 300 years ago a domesticated version of it provided the nation's pork and bacon. Industrialisation, however, saw farmers cross these native pigs with quicker-maturing oriental ones. Fewer than 300 breeding sows remain today.

* Gloucestershire old spot The oldest pedigree spotted pigs in the world. Traditionally they were kept in orchards and on dairy farms. A thousand or so breeding sows survive.

* Lincolnshire curly coat Became extinct in 1972, but had been popular in Hungary and Austria after some were exported in the 1920s. Continental farmers cross-bred it with the Mangalica breed, 20 of which have been introduced to the UK.

SHEEP

* Boreray Fewer than 300 female descendants of these domestic sheep, once kept by the residents of the Scottish island of St Kilda, remain. When the inhabitants evacuated Hirta (the main island of St Kilda) in 1930, their domestic stock was evacuated with them. A replacement flock of sheep had been kept on the island of Boreray, however, where they have lived wild ever since.

Soay The Soay, traditionally found only on the west coast of Scotland, descend from the sheep of the Isle of Soay - soay means sheep in old Scandinavian. They are believed to have been present on the island in the ninth and 10th century, the time of the Vikings, but some suggest the breed has been around for 4,000 years. Around 900 breeding females survive.

News
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
people
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister
news

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past