Native British farm breeds continue to decline

Latest figures from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust indicate certain breeds are 'in freefall'.

Latest figures from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) highlight the continued and worrying decline of the most endearing and precious of our native farm breeds, from the contented, mud-loving Gloucester Old Spot pig to the prick-eared Border Leicester sheep—the charity’s new 2016 Watchlist poster is covered in minus signs. Although no British breeds have been lost in more than 40 years, thanks to the enthusiasm of individual owners and societies, and sheep and cattle breeds are reasonably stable, chief executive Tom Beeston points out that numbers are not everything: the gene pool is shrinking alarmingly.

‘We have major concerns over fall- ing numbers of registrations, but what is potentially an even greater long-term threat is the growing lack of genetic diversity,’ he warns. ‘The founders of the trust [in 1973] recognised the importance of ensuring that the genetics of our native breeds were preserved, but they may not have realised just how much more significant they could be for future generations of food producers.

‘Issues such as climate change, the impact of rising incomes in the developing world and a surging demand for animal products had yet to be raised then. It’s now predicted that, by 2050, demand for animal protein will be 50%–100% higher than now and that demand has to be satisfied against a background of major environmental changes.’

The RBST’s Gene Bank has a funding target of £5 million–£10 million. This year’s aims include collecting semen from Lincoln Red, British White and Shetland bulls, a Highland pony stallion, four rare-breed boars and three billy goats as well as embryos from Norfolk Horn ewes and nanny goats. Recent semen collections include North Ronaldsay, Portland, Leicester Longwool, Soay and Devon Closewool rams and two Gloucester bulls. Owners of suitable billy goats are invited to contact the Gene Bank.

Goats were the main focus of the RBST’s Christmas appeal and registrations are up for both the UK’s native breeds; the ancient Bagot, which is starting to find a niche as a useful conservation grazer, shows a rise of 14% in registered breeding females, and the pretty golden Guernsey is up by 3%.

Registrations for native Aberdeen Angus, Gloucester, Irish Moiled and Shetland cattle look healthy, but the White Park is showing a decrease for the third consecutive year and numbers of Vaynol and original-population dairy shorthorns are dropping. Continued enthusiasm for smallholding and the work of individual societies are boosting the native flock, apart from the Border Leicester and Lincoln Longwool sheep, which are both in danger of falling down a category, from ‘at risk’ to ‘vulnerable’, on the RBST Watchlist.

All pig breeds are under pressure except the Welsh—the Landrace, which only came onto the Watchlist three years ago, is already classified as endangered (fewer than 200 breeding sows); the equine sector is described as being ‘in freefall’ and even the ‘safe’ Shetland and Welsh ponies had registration falls of 12% in 2015. Traditional, local hill breeders of Fell ponies in Cumbria are dwindling, but there is some good news in that a record membership figure for the Highland Pony Society indicates more enthusiasm for the breed as a privately owned riding pony.

Breeds on the move*

Castlemilk Moorit sheep (to category 4)
Teeswater sheep (to 4)
Balwen sheep (to 5)
Norfolk Horn sheep (to 5)
Whiteface Dartmoor sheep (to 5)

Middle White pig (to 2)
Landrace pig (to 2)

*RBST Watchlist categories: 5 = minority; 4 = at risk; 3 = vulnerable; 2 = endangered; 1 = critical (02476 696551;

** Read more from Country Life