We preserve our old tractors, so why not preserve our old breeds of livestock too? Here in the British Isles we have some very old breeds of livestock, some of which are becoming so rare that they are in serious danger of being lost altogether. It’s not just livestock either; varieties of fruit and vegetables once popular have become lost in the mists of time.
Sometimes, sadly, things become endangered or extinct because they weren’t that good in the first place. Some old-fashioned breeds of farmyard animals didn’t breed easily, for instance, or didn’t have good mothering instincts. But more often it is a matter of fashion. There might be a trend for larger cuts of beef, sheep that produce white wool or even for apples that have a red skin instead of green.
Protecting native breeds
Many traditional livestock breeds are now endangered, and in some cases only a handful of examples of the breed remain. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) helps preserve British native breeds and promotes the role these animals play in the conservation of genetic diversity, landscape management and agriculture.
Conservation groups like these also recognize the influence these creatures have on our heritage and cultural identity. After all, these are the animals that fed, clothed and provided an income for our ancestors, often as far back as records exist. According to the RBST, throughout the world one breed of farm animal becomes extinct every month, a shocking statistic.
It is estimated that between 1900 and 1973, Britain lost 26 native breeds of livestock as well as many varieties of poultry. For a small island, that is an awful lot to lose. The Somerset sheeted cattle, the Lincolnshire curly coated pig and the Goonhilly pony are among breeds that have disappeared forever. Among the animals on the RBST’s Critically Endangered List are Vaynol cattle, Boreray sheep and the Suffolk horse. Hopefully, moves have been made in time to secure the future of these very vulnerable breeds.
A link to the past
My passion for all things vintage doesn’t stem from a hatred of the modern world but rather from a desire to remain in touch with the past. I think it is important to hang onto things from the past, not least because they are often charming and beautiful in themselves, but because, on a more practical level, we might learn something from them. And who knows? We might need them one day. Having grown up with very little money I don’t like to see waste, and seeing people discarding anything without very good grounds is, in my book, a big “no no.”
What’s more, an old variety of apple or an old breed of chicken is as much a part of our farming heritage as an old tractor or implement. I think anyone who cares about the preservation of old machinery is also likely to appreciate the value of preserving an old-fashioned breed or variety, especially one that hails from your own home country.
Keeping the old breeds
It is with those thoughts in mind that I made the decision to keep light Sussex chickens and Welsh badger-faced sheep. The light Sussex is an old British breed from the days when a hen was expected to be something that could lay eggs, rear chicks and, at the end of it all, provide a fantastic family meal. A dual-purpose bird, it came from the days before chickens specialized as either meat birds or laying birds. It remains today a good all-’round productive bird.
The good thing about light Sussex birds is that they are hardy and clever, and they keep laying eggs for years. It is a breed that hasn’t been too “messed around with,” if you know what I mean. I once bought some young birds that were specially bred for the table, and even though they were living a free-range lifestyle they didn’t have any of the instincts of the old breeds. Basically, they weren’t very intelligent. When it rained, they stood outside getting wet and looking miserable instead of retreating indoors to the hen house. Worst of all, they grew so ridiculously large so fast that their poor legs were almost unable to carry them. I felt that they were pitiful freaks of nature that we humans, in our greed, had gone too far in creating. Never again. I’d rather have a bit less meat on a bird, and have to wait a bit longer before eating it, than rear animals like that.
Welsh badger-faced sheep aren’t terribly rare, but they certainly aren’t a common commercial sheep, and they are, like the light Sussex chicken, a very old-fashioned breed. There are much rarer breeds of sheep, but some of the very old and endangered breeds are extremely small in stature, a less practical choice for someone on a limited budget (like myself) who has to pay “per head” for the sheep to be killed and butchered.
Badger-faced sheep are similar to the Welsh mountain sheep and, like them, are a hardy, long-lived breed with marvelous mothering abilities. They are often crossed with larger meat-producing breeds in order to add a bit of robustness (and sense perhaps) into what is otherwise a purely commercial breed.
The history of the badger-faced sheep is interesting. A colored breed, they come in two types. The Torddu have a creamy, white fleece with black legs, belly and throat. They also have distinctive badger-type markings on the face, hence the name. The Torwen is like the negative copy of the Torddu, black with creamy white legs, belly and throat. They were common in the Welsh hills before the British wool industry took off in a big way.
With the advent of the “Wool Boom” several hundred years ago, pure white wool became highly desirable and many colored breeds rapidly fell out of favor. That is when the plain white Welsh mountain sheep became the market leader. But despite the fact that farmers tried to breed the badger-faced markings out of their sheep, they continued to get throwbacks.
The badger-faced sheep make fantastic mothers and they fatten easily. Their only downfall is that, like the Welsh mountain sheep, they are fairly small so their cuts of meat aren’t huge. I am only 5 feet 1 inch tall, so it suits me to keep a fairly small breed. They are, however, by no means the smallest breed around. Soay sheep, which hail from northern Scotland, are tiny in comparison, looking at first glance more like a miniature Biblical sort of goat than a sheep.
I once thought of keeping a more unusual breed, like the Hebridean sheep for instance. The Hebridean hails from Scotland and is highly distinctive with its black fleece and long horns, but it was the problem of finding a mate for them that put me off. I don’t have enough space to warrant keeping a ram, and it’s no good trying to breed a certain type if you don’t have access to the male of its kind. There are a few people in Wales who keep badger-faced sheep, so accessing a ram (or “tup” as they are known here) isn’t too much of a problem.
After deciding against the Hebrideans, I had a long and fascinating conversation with a very knowledgeable organic farmer, and he made me aware that I had probably made the right decision. Not because there is anything wrong with Hebridean sheep per se, but because they come from the Hebrides in north Scotland. In order to best preserve all the traits and characteristics that make up that breed they are best off remaining in the place of their origin.
This farmer believed, and I’m sure he was right, that certain breeds have evolved to be what they are as a result of their environment. If we don’t continue to keep them in that environment, we will, albeit very gradually, alter the breed. His advice was to keep the breed from your locale if you possibly can. I think that probably makes a lot of sense, although if a very rare and vulnerable breed is to survive, it is quite possible that it will have to rely on popularity outside of its native locale. It’s a complicated issue, but I can’t help feeling that first and foremost we must try to keep our native breeds alive, and then, where possible, we should try to keep them in their original environment.
So I try to do my bit. I live in Wales so I keep a Welsh breed of sheep and a British breed of chicken (to my knowledge there are no specifically Welsh breeds of chicken), but I’m no saint either. I’ve got a Spanish horse and a dog whose breed hails from New Zealand, of all places. But more about them another time! FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .