Sexy beast: Why Britain's rare breeds could be the saviours of their species

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There may be only a few hundred Dairy Shorthorn in Britain, but Tulip and other rare breeds of cattle, sheep and pig aren't just genetic dead-ends. As their impassioned owners explain, these beauties are the supermodels of animal husbandry – and, quite possibly, the saviours of the 21st-century farmyard

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Tall, broad-shouldered with snow-white hair and a steady gaze, Morgan cuts an impressive figure. After a brush and a wash – Fairy liquid, a bucket of water and firm grip are required – it's showtime. Morgan, a 16-month-old Wiltshire Horn ram, is one of more than 50 native breeds that competed at the Singleton Rare Breeds Show at the Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex this year. The show celebrated its 25th anniversary in July and the event has never been stronger. Indeed, it's been a very good year for many of British farming's rarest breeds.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), founded in 1973, monitors our most vulnerable breeds across a number of categories, from Minority and At Risk to Vulnerable, Endangered and Critical, and publishes an annual watchlist. In this year's watchlist, several significant breeds, including the Middle White pig and the British White cattle, slid up a category or two. With animals in the Critical category numbering fewer than 100 breeding examples and Minority breeds fewer than 1,000, that can mean the difference between maintaining a viable population or simply curating a living museum.

It's tempting to see rare breeds as agriculture's misfits and eccentrics, overtaken by the more popular kids in class. In fact, they're more like supermodels: highly refined for their role and, in the case of dainty Berkshire pigs, Portland sheep with caramel-tipped legs and black-nosed British White cattle, really quite beautiful.

The Wiltshire Horn, explains Morgan's owner Michael Newall, is one of the RBST's success stories. The breed left the watchlist in 2006 and the reason for its renaissance comes down to one thing: money. While the other breeds were prized for their heavy fleeces, the Wiltshire has a hairy coat that doesn't need to be sheared. With British wool prices at rock bottom and travelling shearers charging up to £5 per animal, the Wiltshire suddenly becomes more interesting economically to smallholders.

Linda Rollason used to keep Wiltshires, before they were taken off the watchlist, and now breeds the Norfolk Horn, an At Risk breed with fewer than 1,500 breeding animals remaining: "The plight of the Norfolk is partly why the RBST was formed. Depending on who you talk to, they were down to about 10 ewes and two rams in the 1950s." It's a prime example of a breed too specialised for its own good. "The original Norfolk Horns were designed for the Norfolk Brecklands, which had shallow, sandy soil with little shade, making for hot, dry summers and cold, exposed winters. The breed has to take that. They have to be agile and walk long distances to find food, which is why they're a tall, rangy shape. And they'll eat anything."

When modern fertilisers were used to improve the Breckland's pasture, the thrifty Norfolk Horn became obsolete overnight, unable to compete with the Suffolk sheep. "With the pressure of post-war food shortages and the industrialisation of farming, people wanted productive animals with lots of fast-growing offspring, at the expense of taste and variation," says Rollason.

The same happened in pig and cattle farming. In Billingshurst, Michaela Giles rears Saddleback pigs, a rare breed that has just fallen into the Minority category. "The problem with traditional breeds is that they take longer to get to slaughter weight," she says. "We slaughter at around 24 to 28 weeks, not 16 weeks – that's a lot of extra feed. We can't compete with Tesco, or even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall."

The change in farming practices was even more dramatic for the dairy cattle herd. In 1944, the Northern Dairy Shorthorn numbered 10,000 cows and 1,000 bulls. By 2007, there were just 55 females in five herds. By contrast, 220,000 black and white Holstein calves were registered in the UK last ' year, according to Simon Gee of Holstein UK. And modern farming has been supersized: 200 Holsteins can live on the 80 or 90 acres where there once used to be just 30. Some farms are entirely dependent on bought-in feed; there's no grazing at all.

So, if these breeds can't survive, why keep them on life support? "Rare breeds represent a huge number of things to us: a genetic heritage but also a social heritage," argues Claire Barber, the RBST's conservation officer. "We were able to progress as a country thanks to wool from certain breeds. They're just as important to conserve as a stately home.

"Modern agriculture has used only a few breeds since the war. We're now getting exotic diseases such as bluetongue and changing regional climates. If all your animals are virtually [or actually] clones, you're in trouble. We learn more about the genetics of these animals all the time. Some may be more resistant to conditions such as foot rot. From that point of view alone they need to be conserved. You can take sentiment out of conservation."

Rollason agrees: "The people who keep rare-breed sheep are running gene banks without the freezers. We don't know what we might need in the future. Look at the Wiltshire – in a hotter climate they're far more popular. But it's more than that: I feel connected with people from hundreds of years ago. These breeds are a link to our past."

Technology is changing the prospects of many rare breeds. Charles Castle is a vet working on an embryo-transfer scheme for his own Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle. "It was the breed I grew up with in Yorkshire. The modern dairy cow is such an extreme animal, with in-built health issues, that it seems bizarre we're letting the Northern Dairy Shorthorn go just for the sake of fashion. That didn't seem to me to be a good enough reason."

Embryo transfers have jumpstarted the breed, with 15 calves produced from 40 embryos. Fertilised embryos are taken from a donor cow and implanted in a recipient. The RBST is also creating a gene bank of rare breeds for future generations. Semen storage techniques that have long been used for cattle are now being extended to other breeds. It's an expensive process – the project's second year will cost £4,000 – and there's no Government help; the RBST is funded entirely by donations, legacies and membership fees.

Castle has witnessed a revival in rare breeds over the past two or three years. "It's a combination of many things: mid-sized farmers find continental breeds harder and more expensive to keep. Traditional breeds tend to be smaller and have quieter temperments, so suit hobby farmers. And there has been a great increase in consumer preference for products that are sustainable, traceable and natural."

Yes, it comes down to what we buy. "The only secure survival route lies in finding a use for rare breeds," says Barber. Many rare breeds, such as Berkshire pigs and Belted Galloway beef cattle, were developed for the dinner plate. Christabel Barran, who farms British White cattle, believes the local food movement is changing the market: "A tremendous number of restaurants in the North are serving locally sourced British White. A lot of breeders sell meat by the box method." Most breeders at Singleton Rare Breeds Show sell surplus lambs and pigs. "We have no marketing strategy other than selling them to friends and family, but the piglets go like hotcakes," says Giles. "Would I want to farm Norfolk Horns commercially?" asks Rollason "No. There are easier ways of earning a living. But I want my breed, my passion, to pass on not pass out."

But who better than a banker to understand the cold, hard economics involved in commercial rare-breed farming? With around 90 pigs, Christine Coe farms Britain's largest herd of Berkshires, a Vulnerable rare breed, at Glebe Farm in Warwickshire – but spends her days working in the City. The meat from her Berkshires, a breed prized by the Japanese for its pork, is sold in her farmshop – she makes her own sausages and cures her own bacon. But it wouldn't be possible to give up the day job yet.

"Personally, I think the future of rare breeds is going to be difficult," Coe says. "When you look at the numbers, they're desperately low: the whole of one breed might be less than one third of a trailer of commercial pigs. They've survived so far thanks to passionate people, who are prepared to work 24/7 and find a niche for the animals. If that passion dies, what is their future?"

The RBST is committed to finding a commercial future for its most vulnerable breeds, so that others may join the Wiltshire Horn, the British White and the Saddleback in the relative safety of the lower categories. "We're not there to carry the breeds," says Barber. In some places, farming is returning to traditional systems, with low- maintenance rare breeds that are perfectly adapted to their environments. Despite changing eating habits and advancing science, grassroots breeders and shows such as Singleton remain exceptionally important to spread the word about rare breeds.

"I would like my grandchildren to have the option to use the Northern Dairy Shorthorn," says Castle, "because I think they're a valuable animal. I thought a lot of people would laugh at me but perhaps they don't think I'm so silly now."

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