Ensuring the survival of the rarest

Andrew Fisher with a Teeswater lamb at Wellhouse Farm near Pateley Bridge
Andrew Fisher with a Teeswater lamb at Wellhouse Farm near Pateley Bridge
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Leeds City Council’s Home Farm at Temple Newsam is the largest working rare breeds farm in Europe. For a few pounds visitors can see native British breeds of sheep, cattle, goats and pigs which are technically rarer than even the Giant Panda or the Bengal Tiger.

One breed in particular which grabs attention is the Vaynol cow which originates from Vaynol Park in Wales and is critically endangered, currently numbering at a staggeringly low 35 worldwide.

“Here at Temple Newsam we work in close partnership with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) and so stock some of Britain’s most critically endangered native breeds, such as the Vaynol and the Boreray sheep. The RBST produce a Watchlist each year, which flags up breeds whose numbers have slipped to dangerously low levels. For sheep this means there are less than 300 breeding females left, and for cattle less than 150,” explains farm officer Shelley Rogerson.

“We have 15 Boreray Sheep, which are part of an RBST national breeding conservation programme. When numbers get this low a breed inevitably becomes inbred, which often leads to infertility problems. This then makes any breeding programmes you put in place almost impossible to achieve. Secondly is the problem of countering the inbreeding, by breeding to something that is more distantly related than to what is currently on the ground. The RBST’s National Gene Bank made it possible to breed the Vaynol with semen from a bull which died 14 years ago, a resource which dramatically increases the chances of saving breeds like this.”

The RBST, a registered charity, came into being in 1973 following several years of campaigning. In keeping with his concerns about sustainable farming methods, Prince Charles became a patron 27 years ago. The Trust celebrated not only its 40th birthday last year, but 40 years of success. Since its inception, no UK native breeds have been lost, and many have been saved.

Jacqueline Broadhead, who owns and runs a rare breeds farm in The Wolds, sees protecting rare and native breeds as key to sustainable farming: “Although I grew up on a farm, I first of all pursued a career in genetic science. It was this that in fact brought me back to farming and to rare breeds. Through my studies I gained a huge insight into the importance of genetic diversity for the sustainability of a breed. Over breeding any breed causes problems with fertility amongst other things, and this is happening right now with Holstein Friesians.

“The more British breeds we can sustain the more opportunities there are for cross breeding, which introduces something called ‘hybrid vigour’. Hybrid vigour helps to keep breeds fertile as well as increasing their natural resistance to disease.”

Jacqueline keeps three native breeds on her farm, something which has evolved alongside her artisan food production business, Epicure’s Larder, which started in 2005 as a cheese production business.

“I started off with just two Shetland cattle, which I have grown to a head of 40. I chose them because they are a hardy breed that can pretty much survive outside all year round, they are also a good size and of a calm temperament for me to handle on my own. Most importantly, they produce high quality milk with a good fat to protein ratio for my cheese making.

“At first I was throwing all the whey from the cheese production away which seemed silly, so I decided to stock a couple of Tamworth pigs. Like my Shetland cattle they are severely at risk - in the case of the Tamworth, there are less than 500 breeding females left in the UK. They live in the woodland, foraging and eating the whey which results in the most succulent and tasty pork.

“Finally I introduced my beautiful Kerry Hill sheep to the farm to nibble away the shorter grasses which the cows leave behind. Like my beef, they are grass reared and slow maturing, which produces high quality great tasting lamb. Kerry Hills are in fact one of the success stories of the RBST as their numbers have now grown to the point where they are off the Watchlist and are no longer classed as rare.”

Andrew Fisher who farms at Summerbridge near Harrogate is another farmer who is a huge fan of stocking rare breeds. He is adamant that his 100 British White cattle is more commercially viable than the herd of Limousins he previously stocked.

“I increasingly found that the Limousin weren’t able to calf naturally, which meant expensive caesareans had to be organised. Plus I found them aggressive and sometimes very difficult to handle – so I sold the herd and switched to British Whites. I grew my current herd from just one cow. It’s taken 10 years, but has been quite an achievement, both for the breed and for me personally, as they were judged as the best herd of British Whites in country last year.”

The beef from Andrew’s British White herd is sold exclusively to Weetons in Harrogate. Andrew also has 12 rare Teeswater sheep.

“These are more of a hobby, but I did grow the flock from just one gimmer lamb. The Teeswater is one of the most vulnerable sheep on the RBST Watchlist, so even small flocks like mine make a huge difference to numbers nationwide.”

Native breeds are part of our local, regional and national culture. Their evolution means that they are well adapted to meet the needs of their local environment, which in turn means that the look of our local landscape is inextricably linked to such breeds. Belted Galloway which were once critically endangered are now a common and preponderant sight across our Dales because farmers are recognising that they can survive on the highest moorlands and hillsides in the harshest of winter weather. They can even give birth on the hillsides too, and are adept at clearing thistles and coarse grasses much more ably than many hill sheep can.

“A lot of our native breeds were lost in the earlier part of the 19th century because demand for food shot up in an unprecedented way after both World Wars. Farmers couldn’t keep pace and so breeds were over bred and over slaughtered,” explains Andrew.

“Over the last few years consumer trends are dictating a return to meat which has a better flavour, is more mature, and which is farmed more traditionally.”

There is hope that changes in consumer demand, coupled with the RBST’s valuable work in increasing awareness of the vulnerability of our rarest breeds, might be just what’s needed to ensure the longevity of the 100 or so native breeds of sheep, cattle, pigs, goats and equine that we still have left.