Christopher Price took up the reins as the new CEO of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) earlier this year. With a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the key issues affecting the countryside and agriculture, he brings to the role of RBST CEO a clear understanding of the challenges and issues facing livestock farming. Here he explains the role of the charity.

RBST is a charity that exists to conserve and promote native British livestock breeds. These are the breeds which for centuries fed, clothed and provided locomotion and transport for every level of society. They evolved to thrive on whatever natural nutrition was available and their grazing habits helped form the landscape on which they lived. Breeds of farm livestock are many and genetically diverse.

The charity was set up in the 1970s when the farming world was changing dramatically and those native breeds that had formed the bedrock of food production were in the process of being side-lined. Farming practices were having to change to meet the challenges of volume food production for growing populations. New generations of farmers moved away from traditional, slow-growing breeds in favour of those more suited to modern intensive methods, and farming became an industry which focused on a narrow band of faster-growing breeds that had higher commercial value.

When RBST was founded, the imperative for native breeds was survival. A number of native breeds, such as the Lincoln Curly Coat pig, had already been lost and many other breeds were falling to a level that brought them close to extinction. Flying in the face of farming fashion, dedicated enthusiasts took on breeds that commercial farmers had turned their backs on and concentrated on maintaining and developing the bloodlines that gave each breed its strength and identity.

Today, we have a clearer understanding of why that diversity matters so much; it offers a resource, the full potential of which has yet to be explored. RBST President, broadcaster and farmer, Jimmy Doherty has said: “Through my academic studies, I developed an understanding of the ecological importance of a diversity of insects and plants – without diversity, we don’t have stability. We need the diversity that rare breeds represent. Today’s generation needs to understand how relevant traditional breeds are to modern food production.”

In the 1970s, RBST’s founders probably wouldn’t have imagined the challenges that lay ahead. Back then, the world of farming was looking at a surplus of grain and it was a logical development to use it to feed intensively reared livestock. Today, questions are raised about the ethics of dedicating vast acres of crops for animal nutrition when we have a growing world population to feed.

Gene Banking for the future

The RBST Gene Bank is the charity’s single biggest investment and a key national asset. The collection and storage of native breed genetics, in the form of frozen semen and, increasingly, embryos, in the Gene Bank plays an essential role in conserving genetic diversity and as insurance against disease.

The Gene Bank provides a vital archive of the heritage genetics that represent the building blocks of today’s breeds. This means that as breeds develop to meet commercial needs, we can ensure that the original ‘pure’ genetics are preserved and can be drawn on in the future.

Feet on the ground

The Gene Bank serves two purposes: the long-term storage of genetics to safeguard against future threat and a resource for current breeding programmes to help ensure genetic diversity in the living populations. One great danger of working with breeds that have very small populations is that the gene pool narrows down to a few bloodlines and inbreeding starts to occur which, inevitably, weakens the breed.

So, while looking to the future in terms of the conservation of important genetics, RBST also works to ensure that the numbers of native breed livestock increase. The main fundraising for RBST this year, ‘Saving the Future Today: RBST Cattle Campaign’, is aimed at supporting the collection and storage in the Gene Bank, of cattle embryos from breeds such as Irish Moiled, Albion and Native Aberdeen Angus.

The potential power of embryo work is illustrated by a project which was run by former RBST Trustee Charles Castle, a veterinary surgeon in Towcester and a Northern Dairy Shorthorn (NDS) breeder. The project, which was part-funded by RBST, involved embryo transfer work both to boost the numbers of NDS on the ground and to put embryos into long-term storage.

This work began in 2009, when there were just 52 registered breeding NDS females. The project succeeded in producing 18 live calves, with 54 embryos in long-term storage. The animals that were born from transplanted embryos have gone on to breed and birth offspring, contributing significantly to the breed’s growth with the number of breeding females reaching 210 over a 10-year period.

Naturally diverse roles

Whilst native breed livestock have traditionally fed our population, they have at the same time helped to shape our landscape by their grazing habits. Many breeds are capable of thriving on marginal land and many of our areas of natural beauty wouldn’t be what they are today without the livestock that grazed them.

That role continues to be relevant in today’s world and RBST is in the forefront of promoting the practice of conservation grazing to maintain landscape and natural habitats. Grazing livestock can help restore and maintain grassland, heathland and pasture-woodland and are being used to manage natural environments by landowners, including Wildlife Trusts and other conservation bodies.

Monitoring the situation

Each year RBST publishes its Watchlist, which plays an important part in monitoring the health of our rare and native breed populations. As the single most important document that RBST produces, it places each native breed of cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and equines into one of five categories according to the level of threat to their numbers. Breeds are placed in the appropriate category based on the total number of registered breeding females in the UK population each year.

Year-on-year, the Watchlist statistics enable RBST to track population trends across the breeds. The Watchlist for 2019/20 has only recently been published and, interestingly, it has provided an opportunity to take stock of a decade of data collection, following the impacts of the last recession. The results suggest that breeds and breeders have generally shown resilience, with trends in the last five years stabilising or showing an increase across all species. This shows that despite a decade of economic challenge, there is plenty of room for expansion of our rare breed populations through careful breeding and enthusiastic promotion of their many and varied qualities.

A key concern that RBST shares with the Sustainable Food Trust is the loss of small abattoirs. The lack of accessible slaughter facilities could have a major implication for local populations of rare breeds nationally. In many areas, the cost of getting animals to the nearest abattoir could increasingly make the difference between profit (or simply break-even) and loss, becoming a significant disincentive for breeders. Equally, it raises welfare concerns when animals are having to travel longer and longer distances.

There is a potential economic impact as well, as local abattoirs can greatly increase the value of native breeds to a sustainable local economy. Stories help sell rare or native breed products and the ability to be able to tell a story of local production, an identifiable breed – or even individual animal – is key to product differentiation. More than that, it can affect the designation of meat which has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which requires that the animals must be slaughtered locally. But, in order for farmers to be able to sell their meat locally, direct to consumers, they must rely mainly on smaller abattoirs which provide ‘private-kill’ services, where meat is returned to the farmer rather than sold on to a large retailer.

Towards a sustainable future

The Watchlist figures indicate that the tide may just be turning for our native breeds. While they may never again dominate the farming scene, the role that they can play in contributing to the future development of food production is increasingly being recognised. Their genetic diversity is at the heart of all this and it is that diversity that RBST is working to maintain. Sustainability is the key – and native breeds have a critical role to play in bringing greater sustainability to modern farming and land management practices.

Photograph: Steph French