Conserving biodiversity through heritage breeds

Clun Forest sheep

I can’t remember when I first heard about the Livestock Conservancy. It was probably back when I fell in love with Shetland sheep and was researching the breed. The Livestock Conservancy’s stated mission is: “To protect America’s endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.” Their website includes helpful information about the Shetland breed and other endangered varieties in the hope of educating people about all the cool animals that might be a good fit for their farms or ranches.

It’s not a humble mission. To paraphrase their website, heritage breeds of livestock represent an irreplaceable piece of earth’s biodiversity and offer genetic variations that may be needed for future farms … As they say, “These lesser-known farm animals are a vital part of ensuring food security for our planet.”

As I’ve written many times before, it turned out Shetland sheep were NOT a good fit for our operation. Shetlands sheep are considered a “primitive” or unimproved breed, and their genetics date back to the bronze age. They are hardy, independent, wiley and beautiful, but they also scatter when they sense a predator — a great tactic if you’ve got a thousand little caves and hollows to hide in, a terrible one if you’ve only got the open range and a band of coyotes that are purposefully trying to split you up and pick you off. In other words, they are perfectly suited for the rocky ridges and crags of the Shetland Islands, not so much for the prairies of South Dakota.

I’ve tried several other breeds since bringing the Shetlands home, and all had their advantages and disadvantages: beautiful fleeces for spinning but not very good mothers, great mothers, terrible fleeces, too big, too small…I’d given up trying to find the perfect breed for my little operation until perusing the Livestock Conservancy’s website this winter and coming across a description of Clun Forest sheep, another endangered breed.

If you are a regular reader of this column, then you already know that the small flock of Cluns I brought home a few months ago have been everything I’ve ever hoped for in a sheep. They are thrifty, hardy, small enough to be easy to work with, but large enough to hold their own, and lambing them was nearly effortless. Consequently, I owe the Livestock Conservancy a debt of gratitude, and I believe even more fully in their mission now that I am living it.

From microbes in the soil to the tallest trees, from the warblers to birds of prey, from the thousands of forbs that populate the grasslands to the thousands of corals that populate the ocean, every ecosystem on the planet thrives on variety. The same is true for our farms and ranches, and yet three-quarters of the world’s food supply draws on just 12 crops and five livestock species according to the United Nations, which is pretty shocking. To take it from the macro to the micro, Cluns might not be perfect for everyone, but they are perfect for me. Shetlands weren’t right for our region and setup, but absolutely would be for someone else’s. Raising livestock isn’t a one-size-fits all undertaking.

This week is “International Heritage Breeds Week,” a campaign created to increase global awareness of these lesser-known breeds and “the irreplaceable genetic diversity they contain,” explains Judy Brummer, interim executive director of The Livestock Conservancy. “Many of these endangered breeds contain traits carefully developed over hundreds of years. Today, heritage breeds serve as primary reservoirs of the genetic diversity…Up to 50% of a breed’s biodiversity is found nowhere else within the species,” she says.

Spurred by the Clun success, I had the kids pick out two heritage breeds of chickens from the Conservancy’s Conservation Priority list to raise for 4-H. When I stopped at a big box farm supply store for fencing materials, and I happened across a bin of Cayuga ducklings (another breed from the list) that had been ordered by accident and that nobody wanted … well, let’s just say it’s now International Heritage Breed week every week here in my little pasture, and I’m very proud of it.

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