The Importance of Rare Breeds to Our Future

 Deb Robson equates having one breed of sheep fleece to use for fibre projects as being the same as woodworkers only being able to work with pine. (Robson, 2007).

The Clash of Distribution and Diversity

As the global economy struggles to cope with an ever increasing population with food and shelter needs, we are only beginning to understand the importance of diversity on our planet.  With the growth of the slow food movement, the return of heirloom vegetables in the home garden and in farmer's markets is on the rise.  While the large grocery chains need nice firm tomatoes that have long shelf life and can be stacked without rotting, there is a place for sweet, vine ripened for those who prefer the taste and texture.  These heirloom vegetables require different distribution systems to fulfil consumer's desires.  In Australia, we have seen how producers supplying produce to the big grocery chains lose their autonomy and get squeezed on price.  

Sheep and their fibre have a similar history to the story of heirloom vegetables.  Over time, new breeds of sheep have become the desired singular product due to not only their soft fleece, but also their ability to survive the Australian outback, survive live export including extreme movement overland and overseas for meat production, length of fleece staple that suits commercial machines to name a few.  While these are all redeeming trait for certain situations and consumer needs, there are other (now rare) breeds that produce longer fleece staples, grow more lustrous fibre, manage well in marginal country, thrive in wetter climates without foot rot, have propensity for multiple young per birth.  These genetic traits could be lost if we do not do something to ensure that large enough numbers of these breeds exist worldwide.

The Science of "Rare" Breed Risks (for those who like to get deeper)

Native breeds of farm animals represent an important resource, from the perspective of their genetics and their contributions to environmental and economic sustainability (Ruane, 2000). Risks facing these resources have been recognised in the report "State of The World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture" (FAO, 2007). Sheep breeds, through their adaptation to local environments overtime, are especially relevant in this respect.

In 2009, a study by A.Carson et al. found that the genetic resources of sheep breeds existing in significant numbers can be endangered through their geographical concentration (despite their breeding numbers). Ten of the breeds were defined as geographically isolated, with up to 95% of their numbers clustered within a 65 km radius of the breeds' mean centre. This endemism presents a major risk, particularly from the threat of disease outbreaks. The study provides a new informational framework for sheep breeds and the data necessary to support the design of new policies and effective management strategies to protect and conserve their genetic resources.

The information provided in this study on breed numbers and geographical distribution of the flocks suggested a more rigorous approach for selection of the animals and populations to be characterised. In turn, the evidence-base for policy decisions on protection of livestock and conservation will be more robust.

Australia's Role in Saving Rare Breeds

Australia, a geographically remote country "girt by sea", has the ability to act as an ark for many species if managed carefully.  The protections put in place by legislators require much proof that an animal is "safe"  and will not wreak havoc from not only and environmental, but also from a disease perspective (in the short and breeding future). The legislation put in place by Australia is onerous on anyone wishing to import not only live animals, but also seamen for artificial insemination purposes.  While these laws are useful in protecting the existing breeding flocks that have made it to Australia, they also make it difficult to introduce rare breeds that are not yet located on this continental "ark". 

How to Save These Endangered Breeds

In the end, money makes the world go round.   There are examples of incentive payments schemes at the national level (FAO, 2007). One example, where breeders were paid a nominal amount when they registered a purebred animal (Steane et al., 2002), is in stark contrast to the Australian example where breeders pay larger sums to register a purebred.  The Australia breeders, register as few animals as required to still enjoy the benefit of the registration for breeding purposes.

So in the end, it seems that the only way to save a breed is to have a use for it.  For instance, for rare pigs, creating a market that recognises the breed name for a particular pig can generate a market for sausages from that breed.  This requires a consumer group who recongnises/requests the breed by name from the butcher who then produce products specifically with and identified as this breed's meat. 

With sheep, we are fortunate that our interest in this website is predominantly for fibre, though it is worth stating that developing a market for the meat for dual purpose sheep is well worthwhile.  Some work to build a market for English Leicester meat has been successful historically.

This project will focus on educating consumers and the supply chain on the benefits of varying benefits of  the fleece attributes of rare breeds.  By creating an interest, we can encourage a better financial economy for these animals, thus providing a more financially secure future for them.