‘It’s interesting because it does look an awful lot like certain parts of England’
What brings Christopher Price of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust all the way from the United Kingdom to Rappahannock County?
Before we arrive at that answer, we should point out that Price hardly feels he’s departed the misty green rolling hills and pastures of his native England, particularly with the heavy rain that fell during his visit Sunday.
“It’s the second time I’ve been to Virginia and on both occasions I’ve been blown away by how attractive it is,” the Trust CEO told this newspaper. “And it’s interesting because it does look an awful lot like certain parts of England. I assume it’s because when the original settlers came here they wanted to make it look like home, and they did. And that legacy is carried on in quite an attractive way.”
As for our opening question, “I was very kindly invited over by our American equivalent organization, which is the Livestock Conservancy,” Price replied. Indeed, he and the Conservancy’s Alison Martin were honored at a Sunday evening reception hosted by Mary Carter McConnell at Millwood, the rare breed horse farm in Woodville.
“We’ve been meeting for the last two days in Raleigh, North Carolina, and tomorrow we’ve got a meeting in D.C. with USDA representatives about what we can do to increase the flow of information across the Atlantic,” the CEO continued.
The list of endangered cattle (20 percent of breeds worldwide), horses, sheep and pigs in the UK — and the United States — is long and expanding. Like the Conservancy, the Trust monitors the number of its native and rare breeds (the UK has 34 native cattle breeds, of which 14 are considered rare), every year collecting data from breed societies, and then uses the number of animals registered in a year to estimate the total number of breeding females. From this it produces its annual Watchlist.
Take the Clydesdale, the heavy work horse Budweiser beer has made so popular in its Christmas holiday commercials and advertisements.
“Our rare breed heavy horses — Suffolk Horse, Clydesdale — who used to plough the fields of the UK, were ‘called up’ during the First and Second World Wars to pull gun carriages (‘War Horse’ film) are now in danger of dying out forever. During the wars, over a million of these horses were used by the army for active service,” the Trust observes.
“Farmers don’t use Clydesdale, Shire and Suffolk horses for ploughing anymore because 99.9 percent of farms use tractors. These horses are noble, majestic animals with great personalities that can be shown, ridden and driven. Action is desperately needed to breed more of these heavy horses.”
In the Sunday interview with the News, Price said: “So we’re talking cows, horses, pigs, sheep and certain poultry. We’re talking tiny numbers. We often talk about the low numbers of polar bears and lions and the like, but some of the breeds we’re talking about are in the low hundreds, they are incredibly threatened animals.
“All of which do have some sort of use. And so much of what we’re about is trying to encourage farmers and landowners to recognize that many of these animals do have an economic role, particularly in Britain where our agricultural role policy is changing so rapidly in light of Brexit. What we want to do is get farmers to recognize that in many cases it will be so much cheaper for them to use native breeds, and they will get a higher premium because they’re selling a product that has some sort of story behind it.”
“I suppose some of the most iconic ones are the sheep kept in the English Lake District,” he replied. “We have the Herdwick, which is a very long haired breed of sheep which was bred entirely to go sit in these very remote, very windswept, very rainy areas of the country. But they were bred to survive on this place.
“Somewhat below down in the hills we have Swaledale sheep, which are a bit less hairy but can survive in this particular area. But not for too long, because agricultural policy in Europe has been based on producing commodities. We’ve competed with American farmers, Australian farms, East European farmers and we’ve just about managed.
“But as we leave the EU [European Union], and therefore leave the general subsidy system, farmers are going to have to become much more entrepreneurial, keep a much better eye on their costs, and where they can make money. And one of the ways they can do that is going back to the native breeds that were bred for where they should be.”
From an economic standpoint, 30,000 herds and flocks of native breeds in the UK contribute over 700 million pounds annually to its local economies, not to mention there are positive cultural impacts.
“Native breeds are part of our national identity and heritage — and they represent a unique piece of the earth’s biodiversity. We have inherited a rich variety of livestock breeds and their loss would impoverish agriculture and diminish the human spirit [and] grazing while native breeds play an important role in the development and maintenance of natural habitats and increasing biodiversity.”
Then there is the “risk reduction” factor, where “genetic resistance is increasingly important for the control of animal diseases, today and in the future. Saving our native breeds can help us to face as yet unknown challenges in the form of disease resistance and susceptibility, climate adaptation, food security and resilience.”
The U.S.-based Livestock Conservancy, in existence for over 40 years, similarly says many of America’s once-common farm animals face extinction.
“Although all rare breeds face challenges, it has become apparent that the recent market downturn has particularly impacted our equine breeds. Many horse and donkey breeds face the threat of extinction more so today than at any other time in history.”
Thanks to a grant from the USA Equestrian Trust, the effort to stabilize equine breed decline and secure the remaining diversity began in 2017. It started with collaboration between Virginia Tech, Texas A&M University and The Livestock Conservancy to bring together representatives from approximately 50 endangered horse breed associations and registries to participate in the first National Endangered Equine Summit.
According to the Conservancy, this group represents thousands of horse owners. Together with leaders of the scientific, rare breed, and horse communities, the group was tasked to identify what they believe are the leading causes of breed population declines, decide what actions may be taken to stabilize the loss of breeds, and develop a list of achievable and fundable action points.