Magazine article Geographical

Animal Farm

Magazine article Geographical

Animal Farm

Article excerpt

Farm animals, like hedgerows and dry stonewalls, are part of Britain's unique rural heritage. But the weird and wonderful breeds that once dotted this green and pleasant land are disappearing at an alarming rate. At last, says Lisa Sykes, the fight to save them is on

Picture the British countryside and what do you see -- fields and hedges, copses and dry stone walls. The rural landscape sitting on top of Britain's intricate geology is a national treasure, characterised by its local distinctiveness. But there is something missing.

The farm animals dotted over today's landscape are as bland as the countryside is diverse. Breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, goats and poultry, bred locally to suit the topography and climate of a particular area, have been disappearing at an alarming rate.

Horses were the first animals to suffer in the brave new agricultural world of the 1950s and 1960s, as productivity became the prime concern. As soon as tractors replaced real horse power, heavy horses were doomed. Then the dairy industry went black and white as Friesians were bred to produce more milk, relying on concentrate feeds to do so. Poultry and pig production also became more intensive, with the result that by 1970 five pig breeds had become extinct. By 1973, 20 breeds of farm animals had disappeared altogether.

However, the fight to save rare breeds of farm animals, and their genetic diversity, is at last gaining ground in Britain. And since the formation of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust 25 years ago, no other breed has become extinct. The Warwickshire-based RSBT is responsible for the preservation and conservation of rare and endangered breeds of farm animals by encouraging farmers and small holders to keep and breed animals on the Trust's Priority List.

And the future looks bright. Nick Evans and Richard Yarwood, lecturers in rural geography at Worcester College of Higher Education, have studied the fall and rise of rare livestock breeds. "More than 40 per cent of British cattle breeds, 26 per cent of sheep and 70 per cent of pigs are currently classed as endangered. But their numbers and status are improving," says Yarwood. "In 1981, there were only 250 adult Dexter cows in the British Isles. Today there are more than 1,500. Numbers of Cotswold sheep have doubled over the same period."

Evans and Yarwood believe there are five reasons for their improved status: farm diversification, with farmers keeping unusual animals as a visitor attraction; a growth in hobby farming; increasing concern over preserving the rare breeds themselves; the realisation that some rare breeds can aid conservation; and more consumer demand for organic food, requiring hardy animals that can thrive outdoors.

Val Nicholson at the RBST puts it more plainly. "Things are looking up for rare breeds because we are eating them," she says. "This sounds a bit cannibalistic but farmers need a viable outlet and because there are always too many males, they have to be culled anyway. The meat marketing scheme we began has taken off, with the result that farmers can afford to keep them."

The Soil Association, an organisation that certifies organic farms, says that more than half of the 900 livestock farms on its register stock rare breeds. "The interest in food and the quality of it has grown," says Philip Stocker, SA's agricultural development officer. "[The result is that] regional produce is very popular."

The patron of the RBST is Prince Charles, whose high-profile organic farm at Highgrove keeps several rare breeds for genetic reasons. Farm manager, David Wilson, is concerned with the rarest breeds of farm animals, and stocks Cotswold ewes, Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs, Gloucester cattle and Large Black pigs. "People think that if there are 500 of something left then it's okay but in fact the gene pool is very small and fertility becomes poor because the animals are all related to each other," he says. …

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