Conserving the World’s Heritage Breeds in North America

This brief piece was published along with my Soay Sheep article in the January-February 2008 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

A majority of North American heritage conservators emphasize breeds with North American roots, and rightfully so. However, endangered breeds from abroad need us too. Breeds with a limited genetic pool to draw from are especially vulnerable when core groups are decimated due to disease, environmental disaster, or acts of war, so it’s important to maintain satellite groups at a distance.

Consider Britain’s war against hoof and mouth disease, in which entire flocks and herds of livestock, rare or otherwise, are destroyed to contain the spread of this modern-day plague–and needless to say, war can have devastating effects on entire breeds. The Orlov-Rostopchin horse of Russia was nearly annihilated during World War I and the following Russian Revolution, but was carefully bred back up in the post-war years. Then during World War II, every horse at the state stud farm was killed; the only known purebred survivors were three horses stabled at the Moscow Agricultural Fairgrounds. Numerous other European breeds fared just as poorly; for example, at the close of the war only three purebred Friesian stallions were left alive. These are now reconstructed breeds; had satellite herds been in place in North America, the original pre-war breeds would have surely survived.

So endangered international breeds need dedicated conservators too. Soay sheep, Ancient White Park cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, and Belgian hares–they all need additional steadfast breeders if they’re to survive. Or choose Catalina chickens, Aylesbury ducks, or Shetland geese if poultry strikes your fancy. There are hundreds of interesting, endangered heritage breeds from abroad that are crying for committed conservators. If that’s you, consider establishing a satellite group on your farm as a hedge against catastrophe.