How farmers aim to save ancient animal breeds from extinction

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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 Then, over the last century, it was superseded by new, more specialised breeds until the 1970s when fewer than 30 breeding females remained.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.

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