Fight to save rare breeds threatened by farm virus

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The Independent Online

Save the whale, yes – but in the immediate future, save the vaymol cow, the boreray sheep and British lop pig.

Save the whale, yes – but in the immediate future, save the vaymol cow, the boreray sheep and British lop pig.

These rare breeds of British farm animals are among those threatened with extinction by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, and yesterday a £2.5m appeal was launched to preserve them.

Because of foot-and-mouth, the populations of some unusual animal types are down to fewer than 100 individuals, said the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, a charity dedicated to the support of rare and minority breeds of livestock which backs the appeal.

The destruction of infected stock and contiguous culls have forced numbers to record lows, threatening to wipe out animals that do not exist anywhere else in the world, the trust said. The appeal is designed to expand its unique gene bank to minimise the effect of any future farming crises.

Rosemary Mansbridge, the trust's chief executive, said: "For some years we have been collecting semen from threatened breeds as an insurance policy. "But a series of crises in farming, including BSE/vCJD, E.coli, salmonella, swine fever and now foot-and-mouth, have resulted in millions of animals being destroyed.

"We have to make sure we hold sufficient genetic material to ensure that when the next farming crisis hits, we shall not lose any of the 63 unique breeds the charity looks after."

Examples given by the trust of breeds at critically low numbers include the vaymol cow (only 21 remaining), the boreray sheep (only 60 ewes left), the British lop pig (only 200 breeding females), Irish moiled cattle (229), castlemilk moorit sheep (350) and North Ronaldsay sheep (400).

Among the breeds hardest hit by foot-and-mouth is the whitefaced woodland sheep. Numbers were approaching 500 breeding females six months ago. Now, some 20 per cent of the breed has been destroyed in the Pennines and West Yorkshire.

Fifty years ago the number of beef shorthorn animals were in the thousands. Today, they are only found in Scotland and North Yorkshire, and before foot-and-mouth there were fewer than 1,800 breeding cows. At least 12 per cent of the population has been wiped out in the past few months.

The trust says its national reGENEration bank needs £2.5m. Twenty-five per cent of the money would be used immediately to increase the collection of genetic material to ensure the future of rare breeds of horses, goats, cattle, sheep and poultry, while the remainder would be invested to provide an annual income to maintain and update the bank as required.

"The collection of the semen is insurance against the worst possible disaster that we have to allow for," Ms Mansbridge said.

"We now have to extend the same coverage to other rare breeds. I hope we shall not have to use it but the semen is there if we do. The national gene bank is a vital safeguard."

In response to the foot-and-mouth epidemic, the trust has been adding selected breeds of sheep using the latest techniques.

Previously, semen taken from rams often would not be fertile after being frozen and stored. Technology has caught up with the breeding cycle of the sheep, and a specialist company, Edinburgh Genetics, has been retained by the trust to collect semen from six breeds identified as being most endangered.

There are 29 breeds of sheep recognised by the trust as being at risk but the process is expensive and the organisation has decided to concentrate on the breeds at greatest risk from foot-and-mouth.

The programme is being paid for by the trust, which is a charity supported by donations and membership subscriptions. The trust says it decided to launch the appeal because the Government refused to help.