2013-02-15 xml
Iconic Breeds Join RBST Watchlist

As it celebrates its flagship 40th anniversary year, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust reports that two iconic native breeds have come onto its annual Watchlist of rare breeds, indicating that the need for its conservation work continues.

Border Leicester sheep come onto the Watchlist in Category 5 (Minority) and Large White pigs (BPA registered) also come on in Category 5. Described as ‘the great improver’, the Border Leicester is recognised for its capacity for crossing with other breeds to pass on its traits of proflicacy, milkiness and rapid growth rates. One possibility for the drop in numbers of registered ewes may be that the breed has fallen victim to its own success, with the focus on crossing masking the fact that the numbers of pure-bred females were dropping.Border Leicester

Border Leicester

The Large White, the foundation of most of the modern pig industry, is facing a challenge through the small number of breeders of registered stock with a high percentage of the registered females in just two or three large herds. Marcus Bates of BPA says: “If one of those breeders were to drop out, we could see a very serious situation indeed. Some Large White breeders have been dependent on export markets, but these are extremely volatile. As the commercial pig industry consolidates into large production companies with vertical integration, the market to supply Large White boars to family-sized farms has disappeared.”

With the Large White and the Border Leicester coming onto the Watchlist, RBST has seen the importance of keeping a watching brief on the UK’s ‘Other Native Breeds’. Monitoring this category has already identified some breeds that may be close to moving into Watchlist categories. Currently, the New Forest pony is close to the threshold and there is some concern that the British White cattle could return to the Watchlist.

There is a success story to report, however, with the move of the Shropshire sheep off the Watchlist into Category 6, Other Native Breeds. The breed has seen a resurgence in its fortunes over the last decade with registered ewe numbers in the UK now close to 4,000 with further increases expected when the 2012 flock returns are completed.

One of the reasons cited for the growth in interest in the breed is its unique ability to graze safely among tree plantations, which has seen Shropshire sheep becoming very popular with Christmas tree growers both in this country and across Europe. This attribute is also making them increasingly popular with fruit tree growers, which is an emerging market for the sheep in the UK. With ever-increasing fuel costs and restrictions on the use of pesticides, growers are becoming more interested in alternative methods of weed, herbage and, in some instances, plant disease control, all of which Shropshires can help with.

Not to be discounted is the energy and commitment of the Shropshire Sheep Breeders’ Association, both its council and its members, in creating and maintaining links with breeders across the globe which has resulted in increased interest in UK-bred animals. SSBA President Liz Bowles says: “A third factor in the success of the breed is the increased interest in all types of rare and native livestock breeds in the UK. Based on enquiries received by SSBA, it would appear that there are a number of new entrants who have come into farming over the past decade who are more interested in the old breeds. We also have other established farmers who are looking for livestock that do well in lower input, sustainable farming systems.

“The support of RBST has also played a huge role, from the very first steps back from the brink in the 1970s to the current research project which is utilising the most up-to-date technologies to analyse the breed’s DNA profile as a means of protecting its role within agroforestry. The RBST is supporting this project with funding and has also helped to direct the Association to the most expert assistance in this field from the Roslin Institute.”

Commenting on the implications of the 2013 Watchlist, RBST Managing Director Rob Havard says: “The success of the Shropshire sheep due to the breed’s unique grazing abilities must show that we have to look at the specific qualities of our native breeds and find roles to enable them to play their part in sustainable farming.

“Other movements on the Watchlist show that we still have work to do. As well as just looking at the numbers of registered breeding females, we may need to consider other factors that can pose risks such as geographical isolation or breeders retiring from the industry. It is important, therefore, that as well as working with Watchlist breeds, we also continue to monitor other equally important native breeds, even those that have previously been considered safe. With the rapid pace of change in our agricultural industry there has never been a more important time to support the conservation of our native breeds.”


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