WASHINGTON — What do the Agricultural Research Service, George Washington’s Mount Vernon home and Colonial Williamsburg, Va., have in common?
Here’s a hint: The answer has four legs and a woolly tail.
Both the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which operates Washington’s estate, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates Colonial Williamsburg, maintain flocks of heirloom sheep.
The rare and unique genetic traits of these sheep are being preserved by Agricultural Research Service scientists at the National Animal Germplasm Program in Fort Collins, Colo.
National Animal Germplasm Program facilities house germplasm for sheep, cattle, chickens, pigs, aquatic animals and other livestock.
The animal collection contains more than 480,000 samples, many donated by livestock producers throughout the U.S.
National Animal Germplasm Program has singled out two rare breeds of sheep — Hog Island and Leicester Longwool — for genetic preservation.
Both Hog Island and Leicester Longwool sheep descended from breeds raised during the colonial era, before the advent of modern breeding techniques.
They are smaller than modern breeds, with less meat and coarser wool, but they have characteristics that newer breeds lack.
Today, fewer than 200 registered Hog Island sheep remain, 54 of which live at Mount Vernon.
In December 2008, National Animal Germplasm Program geneticist Harvey Blackburn collected and cryopreserved 253 semen samples from 10 Hog Island sheep for the program’s collection.
Although Blackburn and his colleagues have not yet acquired germplasm from the Leicester Longwool flock in Colonial Williamsburg, they did obtain 92 blood samples from the flock, with the help of Virginia State University professor Stephan Wildeus.
These rare breeds have regional and historical value, but conserving them is particularly important because of their genetic uniqueness.
The sheep germplasm collection was initially set in motion by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit organization established in 1977 with the goal of protecting more than 150 historic breeds of livestock.