2014-02-03   facebook twitter rss

Rare Breeds Get A Wake Up Call

The 2014 Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist update has delivered significant concerns for a number of breeds and, in the case of equines and pigs, whole species.

While previous RBST Watchlist reports have focused on movements between categories, it may be more relevant in 2014 to look at the underlying trends. Coming onto the Watchlist for the first time this year are Devon Closewool sheep and New Forest ponies, with British White cattle returning to the Watchlist.

A worrying statistic for cattle is the move of the Gloucester from Category 4 to 3, which reflects a significant reduction in numbers for the second year running

A worrying statistic for cattle is the move of the Gloucester from Category 4 to 3, which reflects a significant reduction in numbers for the second year running

Perhaps even more worrying than this is that of the total of 57 breeds represented on the Watchlist in categories 1 to 5, 33 are showing three-year average trends of numerical decline, with only 17 showing growth – a situation that the RBST Conservation Committee describes as “a wake-up call”.

For the purpose of compiling the RBST Watchlist, numbers of fully registered UK females are provided annually by breed societies. An average of this data over a rolling three-year period is then calculated and a species-specific multiplier is applied to convert these figures to the numbers of breeding females. This methodology is applied to sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and equines. When determining the Watchlist category a breed should occupy, genetic or geographical vulnerability or other factors can be taken into account.


Of all of the Watchlist species, the picture for sheep is the most positive with 12 breeds showing increasing trends, but this still leaves one breed that has remained static and nine in decline.

Two breeds – the Leicester Longwool and North Ronaldsay – have moved from Category 2 to 3 and the Hill Radnor has moved from 3 to 4.

Other breeds are also showing an upward numerical trend and, if continued, this could see them moving to a less rare category next year, but the Conservation Committee has, for 2014, recommended caution to ensure that these trends for increasing numbers are sustained over the long term.

RBST monitors those breeds in Category 6 and amongst those; there is a handful of sheep breeds which are of some concern. Data provided by the breed society for the Devon Closewool has indicated that this breed should now be moved onto the Watchlist in Category 5.


The British White, a previous success story will unfortunately be moving back on to the 2014 Watchlist. Prior to 2010, the trends for this breed were going up, with nothing to indicate a potential reversal. One possible reason for this could be that, like other breeds that show great success in crossing, focus has been slightly lost when it comes to ensuring a robust registered pure-bred population.

The other worrying statistic for cattle is the move of the Gloucester from Category 4 to 3, which reflects a significant reduction in numbers for the second year running.


While there are no changes of categories for the two breeds of goat listed, it is important to highlight the continued drop in registrations and falling numbers of registered breeding females for the Bagot goat for the third consecutive year.

We are currently working closely with the Bagot Goat Society, and have conducted a Geneped analysis for the breed and the society has introduced a new registration system via Grassroots Systems Ltd, which will hopefully re-focus attention on this breed.


In the context of the broader industry, pig breeders have been facing a very tough economic situation, particularly relating to the escalating feed prices. This is reflected in the rare breed world by decreasing numerical trends for 9 of the 10 breeds on the Watchlist.

It came as a shock to many last year when the BPA registered Large White moved onto the Watchlist and, sadly, this year the breed moves from Category 5 to 4. Part of the reason for this is that around 50% of the registered breeding female Large White were up until last year kept by just four breeders, one of whom has since suffered a major fire in which all of the stock was lost.

The New Forest Pony has come on to the 2014 Watchlist from Category 6 into Category 5.

The situation for horses and ponies has to be viewed in the national context, and nationally, Britain is in the midst of what the British Horse Society (BHS) has described as “a huge and unprecedented welfare crisis” due to over-population.

In the vast majority of cases, pure-bred foals from registered rare breed equines still have to compete on the open market and with so many horses now available, prices are low and buyers hard to find. Not surprisingly, even the most dedicated breed supporters have to think more than twice about breeding. For all equine breeds, including those in Category 6, actual registration figures for 2012 are lower than the previous years and some breed societies have already reported that in 2013 those figures will be even further reduced.

It is likely that some native pony breeds such as the Dales, Dartmoor and Exmoor could potentially also need to be moved to more at risk categories on the Watchlist in the near future.

The 100% populations of the Eriskay, Cleveland Bay and Hackney could face grave risks of even higher levels of inbreeding if these trends continue.

Ironically, welfare issues, and the responsible actions taken by their owners, are partly the reason for the New Forest pony coming onto the Watchlist. Numbers of stallions released for breeding on the Forest have been significantly reduced by the New Forest Pony and Cattle Breeding Society to prevent overbreeding and avoid welfare issues arising from a lack of buyers. This does, however, mean that the New Forest Pony has fallen below the 3,000 threshold for registered adult breeding females for the first time. Now officially a rare breed, it is important to help ensure the genetic diversity of this reducing population is maintained.

While the current combination of over-supply and economic pressures continues to depress the market, it is inevitable that the numbers of rare breed equines will continue to fall. While it will continue to consider a plethora of options, including Geneped analysis to identify the most genetically significant examples of each breed, the Conservation Committee considers that the only ethical conservation measure currently open to RBST is to use the Gene Bank.

RBST will also liaise closely with welfare organisations to ensure that if they take in any rare breed stallions, there is an opportunity for the Trust to look at their genetics and, where appropriate, organise semen collection before the animal is taken out of the breeding population by gelding.

In this way, RBST will be act responsibly in the context of the equine situation whilst fulfilling its obligations as the guardian of the UK’s native breeds by taking a long-term view.


Highlighted among the chickens is the Modern Langshan, as former RBST Trustee Andrew Sheppy is now its only breeder.

Another chicken breed of considerable concern due to very low numbers, and only a couple of known breeders, is the Brussbar.

Another factor affecting some chicken breeds, like the Old English Pheasant Fowl and particularly the Spanish, is that studies like the DNA study at Roslin/Edinburgh University which is part-funded and supported by RBST, show that they are quite genetically distinct. This is an additional risk factor for their populations.

From the RBST listed duck breeds, the RBST Poultry Working Group have assessed as priorities the Orpington, Shetland, Silver Bantam, Stanbridge White and Welsh Harlequin, whilst amongst geese highlighted as priorities are the Brecon Buff, Pilgrim, Shetland, Toulouse (Exhibition) and West of England, all of which are particularly rare with few known breeders.

Other Native Breeds

The Devon Closewool has never previously been listed as a rare breed and RBST is working with the Breed Society to ascertain whether this fall in numbers may be due to a situation where there is a lack of registrations rather than a lack of actual animals, and to assess other risk factors.

Another important lesson that this year’s Watchlist delivers is that there must be no sense of false security for those important native breeds that do not appear on the Watchlist. As a national charity which exists to protect Britain’s livestock heritage, it is essential that RBST continues to monitor those breeds not currently considered under threat. While Category 6 does contain an impressive list of success stories, it doesn’t guarantee a safe haven. Whilst it is true that some livestock keepers are keen to focus their conservation efforts on Watchlist breeds, we must never under estimate the important contribution people keeping Category 6 animals make to breed preservation.

download 2014 RBST Watchlist


  Related Links
link Should Agricultural Land be Used as Flood Defence?
link Plea for Ideas to Conserve National Park’s History
link CLA Search for Unsung Heroes of the Rural North
link Free-For-All Building Threat to National Park

Stackyard News   xml