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Ryeland ewe and lamb at Glenalan Farm. Photo: Steven French

For century upon century domestic animals have been bred with specialized traits suited to particular tasks or to live and prosper in specific climates or regions. Arguably these domesticated breeds are of significance equal to their brethren who live in the wild and just like their wild counterparts, many of the breeds are in danger of extinction. Indeed some breeds have already been lost.

To illustrate my point, I’ll focus on the type of domestic livestock I’m most familiar with: sheep. Or more specifically, British breeds of sheep.

Breeds in place

Almost every country has their particular breed of sheep. Not only countries, but many smaller regions (such as English counties) also came up with a type of sheep most suitable to their environment or needs. Often these breeds were, and remain, remarkably different in appearance and adaptability.

In England some breeds are suited to wool production in drier areas (Lincoln, English Leicester) while others were suited to wetter conditions (Romney Marsh). Some breeds produced quality meat on pasture and stubble (Ryeland, Southdown, Suffolk, Dorset Horn) and others were productive in harsher highland climates (Border Leicester, Cheviot). Some of these breeds have a recorded heritage dating back 1,000 years.

You’ll notice that the names of these breeds are quite regionally-specific or reflect the type of land where these breeds flourished. Ryelands were suited to areas where Ryegrass and Rye Corn was gown. Border Leicesters came from the England/Scottish border region and naturally Dorset Horns came from Dorset. Some breeds are now represented by fewer than 1,000 animals, putting them in the endangered species category.

What’s happened in recent years, particularly the last 30, is that scientists have been measuring animal performance and have come up with figures that reflect wool or meat production under ideal conditions or at very specific locations.

Here in Australia for example, the Merino was found to produce a higher value of wool in particular regions. This has been pretty much extrapolated out to apply to the whole country, to the detriment of wonderful breeds such as the Polwarth and Corriedale. It’s also meant that Merinos, which are particularly adaptable to dry conditions, are now being run in unsuitably wet areas.

The same with meat sheep. The Poll Dorset has come to dominate here in Australia because of its ability to grow quickly to a specific weight; meat flavour and ability to prosper under suboptimal conditions be-dammed.

On the farm

Here’s how all of this can play in a farming situation.

  • On our Tasmanian farm, we run Ryeland sheep because they’re placid, easy to fence, and we can run one or two more per acre than was the case with our previous breed.
  • We have a couple of restaurants that insist on our barnyard-reared Berkshire pigs because they believe that the flavor of this meat is far superior to the more “commercial” factory-raised breeds. Additionally the cost of feeding our Berkshires is much reduced because they thrive on a natural diet that would starve their factory-reared counterparts. Someone turning off hundreds of pigs a week would find it almost impossible to raise and feed pigs the way we do. It’s really only suitable for someone with a handful of sows and surplus milk to feed, as was the norm before the advent of intensive agriculture.
  • Also we have a Belted Galloway bull that has a wonderful temperament. We have two neighbours who have bulls of different breeds that you can’t even get in the paddock with for fear of being attacked. Our bull is a pleasure to handle while their’s are nerve-wracking and dangerous. A good temperament might be hard to measure, but you sure can tell it when you see it.

What has often been lost or ignored in Big Ag’s one-size-fits-all approach are important traits such as temperament, mothering qualities and the ability to convert a wide diversity of plants into wool and meat under a varying range of soil and climatic conditions.

This is just a very limited account of the perilous state in which many domesticated breeds now find themselves. It’s not only sheep; the same applies to chooks, cattle, pigs and plants.

With artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and irrigation, much of our otherwise highly productive farmland now has a lot in common. It’ll be a difficult day if we ever need to get back to running livestock suited to specific regions and circumstances rather just selecting those that yield the highest under optimum conditions.