Native breeds provide a number of benefits to farmers in terms of increased profits and reduced input costs. They may well prove to be the future for post-Brexit farming, says Chris Price, chief executive of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST).
UK native livestock breeds make a major contribution to our rural economy, both economically and culturally.
There are around 30,000 herds and flocks of native breeds in the UK which contribute over £700 million to local economies.
One of the key factors affecting the health of our rare breed populations is the economic situation and the pressures it places on breeders.
This year, a decade on from the last recession, the RBST Watchlist revealed the encouraging news that breeds, and breeders, have generally shown considerable resilience, with most species over the last five years having either stable or increasing populations.
These dedicated breeders are proving native livestock have a vital role to play in the future of farming.
The post-Brexit world is going to be a challenging place for many farmers. Farming without direct support and potentially having to compete on global markets will require a significant change of outlook.
Native breed farmers, providing low volume, high welfare, high value, niche products with a good story to tell could be in a strong position going forward.
As consumers become more concerned about traceability and the environmental impact of their food, farmers who can put such matters at the heart of their marketing will have a clear advantage.
Farmers thinking of diversifying into tourism can also use the attractive variety of native breeds as an added attraction to get the edge over their competitors.
It’s not just about increasing profits; native breeds also make sense from the perspective of reducing input costs.
Native breeds are increasingly recognised for their versatility, being capable of grazing sensitive landscapes habitats including grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland, and requiring fewer inputs than many continental breeds.
Most native breeds were bred to be efficient converters of forage, be that grass or hay, and can thrive on this without the need for additional cereal-based feed, a major cost saving.
In addition, being generally kept in extensive outdoor systems, the need for veterinary medicines is often lower.
As a result, native breeds can be well suited for farms looking for flexibility in an uncertain post-Brexit future.
Even for those who do not farm them directly, the future of our native breeds should be a major concern.
As this week’s UN report noted, the conservation of native breeds has a key role to play in meeting wider agricultural and conservation objectives.
Any further loss of genetic diversity poses a serious risk of undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change, all of which should be a worry from a food security perspective.
The tide is turning for our native breeds, and the role they can play in contributing to the future development of sustainable food production and land management is increasingly being recognised.
Producing high-quality meat and fibre and playing a key role in the formation and maintenance of many semi-natural habitats, native breeds may yet prove to be the future of farming.
Chris can be found tweeting at @RareBreedChris