The annual barometer of native livestock breed numbers, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s watchlist, has been released. Katie Jones looks at what some of these breeds could offer UK agriculture in the future.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) says its recently published ‘watchlist’ shows native breeds have a ‘sound platform’ for reviving their numbers and growing their demonstrated value to the countryside.
Christopher Price, RBST chief executive, says native breeds can bring new levels of environmental, economic and cultural benefits to agriculture, particularly as we transition to the new UK agricultural policy.
The publication of the RBST watchlist 2020-21 follows Government’s pronouncement in January that conservation of native livestock and equine breeds is a public benefit set to qualify for payment under the post-Brexit ‘public money for public goods’ agricultural policy in England.
Mr Price says: “Government’s recognition that native breed conservation is a public benefit opens the way for many more farmers, smallholders and landowners to keep rare breeds.
“In doing so, they can be part of the important conservation effort for some of our country’s most striking and most treasured breeds, while also assuring themselves of a new, stable income stream.
“Our 2020-21 watchlist shows the great efforts of rare breed keepers alongside our conservation programmes, over many years, are delivering real results.
“Numbers of Bagot goats have doubled in a decade and continue to grow, Vaynol cattle numbers have increased significantly this year and Border Leicesters have had their best year since they joined the watchlist.
“These rare breeds, and many others RBST monitors and supports, are in a good position to swell their numbers as interest grows in keeping native breeds.”
However, Mr Price says there are breeds in all livestock and equine categories which remain at ‘real risk’ of dying out.
He says: “The declining numbers of Albion cattle, Large Black pigs and Hackney horses are a particular cause for concern this year.”
The watchlist shows Whitefaced Woodland and North Ronalsdsay sheep, Gloucester cattle, Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth and Saddleback pig numbers are also down from last year’s tally.
Lonk sheep have entered the watchlist into category five (minority), and the Whiteface Dartmoor has returned to category 5 (minority) after two years in category six (other UK native breeds). Efforts are underway to account for and address these declines.
English goats have entered the RBST watchlist for the first time, classified as critically endangered. Mr Price says efforts to grow numbers of the breed will now benefit from this recognition and from RBST support.
British Lop pigs
British Lops are among the most at risk pigs, in the ‘endangered’ category. Last year, RBST began a five-year conservation programme.
The RBST has now added genetic material from the first of 15 boars to the UK National Gene Bank.
North Ronaldsay sheep
The first ever North Ronaldsay embryo additions were made by the RBST to the UK national gene bank in 2019.
The RBST collects genetics from animals as an insurance policy. If a breed were to become extinct, this store can be used to revive it.
Mr Price says it is important to remember that rare breeds are often pasture fed, low input and efficient converters of grass to flesh.
He says: “Although not all breeds can secure their future through a market for their products, many of the breeds were bred for particular commercial purposes and can be a profitable option.
“For example, the once rare English Longhorn is now widely used because of the superior quality of its beef. Rare breed pork brings a premium at most high street butchers.
“As consumers look to purchase more locally and look for improved provenance, local breeds add an extra selling point.”
However, he says for rare breeds to fulfil their potential within the countryside, there needs to be a network of small local abattoirs which are capable of dealing with native breeds.
Mr Price says: “We are urging Government to invest to ensure the remaining local abattoirs can continue to operate and to set up mobile or temporary units where the local abattoir infrastructure has already disappeared.”
He also adds the environmental benefits, such as conservation grazing, should not be underestimated, and also the importance of rare breeds for disease resistance.
He says: “Saving our native breeds can help us face as yet unknown challenges in the form of disease resistance and susceptibility, climate adaptation, food security and resilience.”
Numbers of Vaynol cattle have increased significantly this year. RBST has worked with breeders to grow numbers and increase the geographical spread of this breed.
In 2009, there was just one herd in Leeds, but now there are also herds in Lincolnshire, Kent and two in Scotland.
The geographical spread helps reduce the risk of inbreeding and mitigate the impact of disease in the event of an outbreak. RBST owns the majority of the population.
There are breeds in all livestock and equine categories which remain at real risk. There are declining numbers of:
Mr Price says: “In 2020, RBST is focusing on conserving the Longwool sheep breeds, which include Whiteface Dartmoors, Lincoln Longwools and Teeswater sheep.
“Some of the Longwool breeds have had a sustained period of decreasing numbers and we will be working to increase their security and genetic diversity, as well as raising awareness of their uses for fibre, meat and conservation grazing.”