Supporting British rare breeds

Some of Britain’s most charming and important animal heritage is at risk, marginalised by increased production and mechanisation in 20th-century farming. The magnificent black Aberdeen Angus, famed for its succulent beef, is on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s (RBST) critical list, which means that there are fewer than 150 breeding females in existence. It became sidelined after the Second World War with the demand for bigger continental breeds that could be reared more quickly on commercial feed. The black-and-white Bagot goat, thought to have arrived from Portugal with John of Gaunt, is also on the critical list, with fewer than 100 breeding females. The Bagot—which has its own society ( and newsletter, The Bagot Bugle—was displaced by more commercially viable Swiss breeds, although it does have a role in conservation grazing.

But a 21st-century fascination with diversity, combined with the current credit-crunch driven ‘good life’ Zeitgeist, seems to be boosting appreciation for historical animals. The RBST’s ReGENEration Appeal, to establish a genetic resource bank to store semen and protect breeds against epidemics, is halfway to its £2.5-million target and, last month, the society, with the National Sheep Association, took over Defra’s National Scrapie Plan. The new national enthusiasm for keeping chickens is spreading to rarer breeds, the niche market for rare-breed wool is expanding, and old-fashioned types of hardy breeds are being used for upland conservation-grazing projects to restore wildlife habitat. Hebridean sheep have been so popular with the National Trust that they’ve come off the RBST’s watchlist, and Exmoor ponies are being used to graze Snape Warren in a project to restore birdlife.

Leading chefs champion rare-breed meat through the RBST’s Traditional Breeds Meat Marketing Scheme. ‘Middle White pork has the crispiest skin and best-flavoured fat,’ says Michel Roux of Le Gavroche. Simpson’s-in-the-Strand serves only Southdown saddles of lamb. ‘For the public to appreciate how wonderful and different “real” meat tastes, it’s vital that the RBST is supported by everyone who cares about “real” farming,’ points out Antony Worrall Thompson.

‘Rare breeds are as much a part of our heritage as country houses,’ says Dawn Teverson, head of conservation at the RBST, ‘and we can’t re-create genes, once they’ve been lost. Some breeds, which are specially adapted to different types of soil and terrain, will come into their own with the increased cost of grain, as they’re lower maintenance to keep. We also need to have somewhere to look for resistant genes to diseases such as bluetongue, where we’re making some headway.’

Additional research by Kate Green

Recommended videos for you

Countdown to extinction

The RBST ( rates rare breeds in the following categories: critical, endangered, vulnerable and minority, according to numbers of breeding females

Endangered cattle
Northern Dairy Shorthorn

When the Northern Dairy Shorthorn Society was formed in 1944, there were 10,000 females and 750 bulls registered. However, numbers deteriorated rapidly, due to competition from continental breeds, and the breed is firmly in the RBST’s critical bracket (under 150). The Northern Dairy Shorthorn evolved as a hardy, dual-purpose breed adapted to upland farming and in the North, and it is now enjoying something of a revival, being used in conservation grazing schemes across the Peak District and Cumbria.

Why it should be saved: Brian Bellas MBE, who has kept the cattle for 18 years, says the biggest advantage is longevity: ‘My oldest is 15 and currently in calf with her 11th calf.’ The Northern Dairy Shorthorn will never produce as much
as the Holstein, but it requires less feed—as it’s used to grazing coarse upland pasture—and, as feed prices increase, this is starting to have a positive effect on its popularity. It is also fecund, easy to calve, docile and has sound feet.

Other critical-listed breeds: Aberdeen Angus (original), Chillingham Wild Cattle, Vaynol. The Whitebred Shorthorn is listed as endangered (under 250), and the Irish Moiled and Lincoln Red are in the vulner-able (under 450) category.

Endangered pigs
British Lop

If you asked a child to draw a picture of a pig, it would probably look like a British Lop; white, lop-eared, long, lean and deep-sided. However, the Lop’s conventional looks may have precipitated its decline; the fashion for spotted, small or short-snouted pigs has meant that this docile and easily managed breed, which was first recognised in Tavistock, Devon, has often been overlooked in favour of its more outlandish cousins and it is on the RBST’s endangered list.

There are currently 194 British Lop breeding sows in the UK and, although they are excellent mothers and have good meat-producing properties—and will not run to exessive fat if poorly managed—supporters of the breed will not relax until numbers increase. Frank Miller, secretary of the British Lop Pig Society (, who owned half the national herd in the 1980s, says: ‘We have a very active membership.’

Why it should be saved: Society member Malcolm Hicks says: ‘The Lop grows faster than most traditional breeds and there’s a lot of good flavour in their meat. The pigs also have a lovely nature that makes them a pleasure to keep.’  

Also endangered (fewer than 200 breeding sows): Middle White. The Berkshire, Large Black, Tamworth and Welsh breeds are listed as vulnerable (under 300).

Endangered horses and ponies

The Eriskay pony—formerly the Western Isles pony—was once an integral part of Hebridean crofting life, but, as crofters disappeared, the ponies became redundant, numbers foundered, and, by 1968, there were only ponies on the islands of Uist and Eriskay. There are now 67 breeding mares on the mainland and fewer than 50 on the islands.

Originally bred to carry panniers of seaweed and peat, the Eriskay’s sensible temperament and size (up to 13.2hh) makes it a suitable children’s pony.

The Eriskay Pony Society ( was founded in 1995 to promote  this gentle, hardy pony. It maintains the studbook for the breed and can issue horse passports.

Why it should be saved: Mary McGillivray bought two ponies in 1979, having seen them at the Highland Show. ‘These ponies need to be seen working, not fossilised; some are hunting in the south of England, others are involved in national driving trials, lead-rein classes and showing. They’re real “do anything” ponies.’

Also critical-listed (fewer than 300 mares): Cleveland Bay, Suffolk Punch. Exmoor ponies, Dales ponies and Hackneys are endangered (fewer than 500).

Endangered sheep

This diminutive—adult ewes weight about 84lb and stand 22in at the withers—but hardy breed hails from Boreray, in the remote Hebridean archipelago of St Kilda. Although humans evacuated the islands in 1930, a reserve flock of their sheep, which are descended from the now-extinct Scottish Tan Face and Hebridean Blackface, remained on Boreray and have been feral ever since. At the last count, there were 160 breeding ewes on the mainland and an unspecified number on the island. Christine Williams, who keeps the largest mainland flock (, says work is in place to prevent a further decline, with protection through St Kilda being a World Heritage Site and monitoring by The National Trust for Scotland.

Why it should be saved: The wool can be used for tweed or carpet yarns and the spiral horns for walking sticks. Its neighbour, the North Ronaldsay, survives on seaweed, and has provided important scientific evidence on protein utilisation.

Also on the endangered list (fewer than 500 ewes): Leicester Longwool, North Ronald-shay, Teeswater.

Endangered birds
Marsh Daisy

This charmingly named fowl has an interesting history. In the late 19th century, Lancastrian farmer John Wright pioneered the breed, combining with another breeder, Charles Moore, in 1913. The pair experimented with an eclectic mixture of Black Hamburghs, White Leghorns, Sicilian Butter-cups and Malays to produce a dual-purpose breed that was wheaten, brown, buff, black and white in colour with distinctive green legs. The breed was registered in the 1920s, but was later presumed extinct, until Rare Poultry Club president Ralph White discovered a flock in Somerset.

Why it should be saved: Breeder Tony Bennett says: ‘It’s the only breed originating from this part of the world—Marshside, near Southport—and they’re very hardy, because they originate from marshland.’ The breed is known for its longevity, as a good layer (of tinted eggs), and for gamey meat.

Also endangered (fewer than 250 hens): Indian/Cornish Game, Ixworth, Old English Pheasant, Orpington and Scots Grey. The Buff Orpington, Scots Dumpy, Dorking and Derbyshire Redcap are vulnerable (fewer than 500).

* Eating rare breeds to ensure their survival was part of Country Life’s rural manifesto in 2008.