Rare-breed poultry and pigs on the decline according to latest Rare Breed Survival Trust Watchlist

Avian flu combined with higher input prices has had a damaging effect on Britain's native poultry populations, according to the RBST.

Avian flu, combined with substantial increases in the cost of keeping poultry, has had a serious effect on Britain’s native chicken, duck, geese and turkey breeds, all of which have been moved into the ‘priority’ category of the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s (RBST) 2024–2025 Watchlist, which is released today.

The picture is not too rosy for native-breed pigs either: seven out of 11 breeds are now categorised as priority and the number of registered Welsh pig sows dropped to 296 in 2023 from 457 in 2020. The only positive pig news is for the smartly marked Saddleback, with an increase in both keepers (by 12%) and breeding sows (16%).

‘The UK’s brilliant array of rare and native poultry is under serious threat,’ comments RBST trustee Tom Davis, who runs the community charity Mudchute Park and Farm in east London. ‘There is a clear decline in active breeding programmes and, when breed populations are so low, losing flocks can be devastating. Collecting comprehensive rare-breed poultry data to steer conservation efforts is a serious challenge and we really need more people to be encouraged to keep these birds and work with RBST and breed societies to help conserve them for the future.’

Data from the British Pig Association confirms a two-year decline of 75 breeding sows for the snub-nosed Berkshire pig and a drop of 65 for the Tamworth, Britain’s original forest pig. There is bad news, too, for the Section B Welsh pony — over 15 years, numbers of this charming children’s riding pony have plummeted from 1,044 to fewer than 400. Despite being a royal favourite, the versatile Cleveland Bay now has a dangerously low Effective Population Number (a measure of genetic diversity, not actual numbers) of under 50.

New forest ponies may soon move out of the ‘rare’ categorisation. Credit: Julian Elliott Photography via Getty Images

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The dual-purpose Shetland cow that has sustained crofters since the days of the Vikings has declined by 19% and the Lincoln Red sees a worrying drop of 39% in registered dams. ‘Some of these rare native breeds have provided communities with food, fibre and power for centuries,’ says RBST chief executive Christopher Price. ‘As well as their great value to our national heritage these breeds have a crucial role in the UK’s transition to sustainable food production that also supports the natural environment.’

Defra’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) encourages farmers and smallholders to choose native breeds for grazing, but, as Mr Price points out: ‘It does nothing to help safeguard the future of our native pig and poultry breeds. We want to see the ELMs SP8 supplement broadened to include native pigs and poultry as well as grazing animals.’

The news is not all bad: flocks of the Greyface Dartmoor sheep have increased sufficiently (by 155% since 2009) for the breed to be no longer categorised as rare and the breeders of the ancient Norfolk Horn rose by 14% last year. One of the rarest of the rare, the Vaynol cow, has stabilised in numbers and Irish Moiled dams have risen by 8%.

On the equine front, the New Forest pony has the potential to move out of the rare categorisation and Exmoors and Dartmoors are doing well. The status of Britain’s four native goat breeds (Bagot, English, Old English and Golden Guernsey) continues to improve thanks to recognition of their conservation-grazing value.