Rare supporters: Pa. families saving animals from extinction


CLAYSVILLE, Pa. — Two Washington County, Pa., farmers are doing their part to protect, preserve and promote rare and endangered animals.


      The Reads and the Williams raise many different sheep breeds hoping to prolong their existence. Cotswold, Tunis and Jacob sheep have found a home at the Read farm, while the Leicester Longwool and Dorset Horn can be found at The Rosefield, owned by David and Mary Lou Williams. All of the these breeds are named on either the “rare” or “watch” lists of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Breeds conservation priority list. Both farm families are members of the ALBC.


      To be placed on the watch list, a breed must have fewer than 2,500 annual North American registrations and an estimated fewer than 10,000 global population. ALBC’s rare list includes breeds with fewer than 1,000 North American registrations and estimated fewer than 5,000 global population.


      Marcia Read and her daughters Sarah, 26, and Jessica, 24, have always taken an active roll in the movement to preserve these minor breeds. With Marcia now working as a full-time librarian, their collection is smaller than it has been in a long time, but the Reads are still big advocates of protecting the distinctive genetics of the breeds.


      Marcia was in grad school when she decided she wanted to find a place where she could have a horse. Soon after that, her interests grew to llamas, pygmy goats, sheep, etc.


      The Reads haven’t shown animals in a long time, but would like to begin again soon. Marcia had the first-ever national champion Jacob ewe. She was also instrumental in the formation of the Jacob registry.


      “The worst and best thing you can do for a minor breed is show them competitively. It’s a double-edge sword — you promote the breed, but then everyone wants to create a new and improved version when there is nothing wrong with the original,” said Marcia. “In sheep shows, the big sheep wins, so we see many people cross breeding Jacobs with Columbias and so on and so forth.”The Cotswold, Tunis and Jacob are all easy lambers and good mothers. These hardy breeds have long lifespans and are easy to care for.


      There were only 1,238 North American registrations for Tunis in 1999 and a 597 in 1998 for the black-and-white spotted Jacobs.


      Sheep have always been an important component of the Read farm, but the small Dexter cattle may be their favorite rare breed.


      “Dexters are without a doubt the ultimate family cow. They are the hardiest breed of cattle you will ever work with,” said Marcia.


      In the 25 years of raising these cattle, Marcia has only had to pull one calf. They hand raise their heifers and enjoy contact with such a unique breed. Jessica tells a story of a cow who had her leg almost completely torn off and had gangrene, but never stopped walking and moving through the pasture.


      “Most of the older, rare breeds of livestock whether it be sheep or cattle, they are hardier than the commercial livestock everyone seems to treasure today,” said Jessica. “You appreciate animals you don’t have to worry as much about.”


      The Reads cite the production-oriented state of agriculture for the downfall of many breeds and small farmers.


      “The Dexter can never compete with the Holstein as far as production, but an average Holstein may stop producing after six or eight years, but an average Dexter will continue produce at 16. A 10-year-old Dexter is not considered old.”


      In 1997, there were less than 700 North American registrations for this docile breed.


      Trends and fads in agriculture also have an influence on how well a rare breed may do. Miniature donkeys, now on ALBC’s recovering list, were rare years ago, but “these days, they’re a dime a dozen,” said Jessica.


      Though the Haflinger horses are not rare by any means, Marcia says their herd of 42 make a good addition to the 175-acre farm. They are also hardy and easy to care for.


      “They are the horse equivalent of the Dexter. Their traits are so similar it is uncanny,” said Marcia. “They’re just an excellent horse.”


      A bizarre ailment led the Williams to their new way of life. Mary Lou was having allergy problems after moving into a brand new condominium in Mount Lebanon, Pa. After vacationing with her husband David in an old bed and breakfast in Europe, she learned she was allergic to the materials used in new buildings. So the search was on to move into an older home.


      They were looking for a house and 10 acres, but they fell in love with a house with 160 acres. After they settled into their historic 1800s home, they wondered what they would do with all of the land. David, an engineer and history buff, became interested in historic breeds and researched sheep in particular.


      Their flocks grew quickly, as they acquired rare breeds including Leicester Longwool and Dorset Horn. Although there is no formal registration for the Leicester Longwool, it is believed there is less than 200 nationwide. North American registrations for Dorset Horns totaled 668 in 1999.


      The Leicester Longwools are one of the oldest sheep breeds and also one of the most rare. They had almost disappeared from North America by the 1980s. At that time, Colonial Williamsburg’s Coach Livestock Department began a search for rams and ewes to bring the breed back. The attempt continues to be slow, but successful.


      Early history of the Dorset Horns is somewhat muddled, however, there is knowledge of a shipment coming to Oregon from England in 1860.


      “We love the history of the breeds. We also like the fact that we are protecting the animals, and that visitors to the farm get to learn about them as well,” said Mary Lou.


      The Williams also raise Shetland, which are also on ALBC’s recovering list at 1,499 registrations; Border Leicester sheep; Romney sheep; and Olde English “Baby Doll” Southdown sheep.


      The Rosefield raises over 500 animals, including sheep, goats, Angora bunnies, chickens, turkeys, Guardian donkeys, two pigs, and a horse.


      Mary Lou has a love for fiber arts, and uses the fiber from the sheep, goats and rabbits in her creations. She and David are looking into building a bed and breakfast on the farm, which would provide another outlet for people to learn about the rare animals.


      The guardian donkeys are raised with the flock and have an instinct to protect the animals from canine attacks. Williams says two of the donkeys recently killed a stray dog attempting to attack the sheep.


      The Rosefield has been the site for pasture walks and other farm tours. They offer Shepherding 101, and Mary Lou often holds fiber arts workshops at the farm.


      Both farms sell breeding stock of the rare animals, and Williams says the market for sheep is growing. While the current market seems favorable, both families hope they, and others like them, can be successful in bringing these rare breeds back into normal population sizes.


      For more information on the minor breeds visit or call:– Jacob Sheep Breeder’s Association at www.jsba.org;

      — National Tunis Sheep Registry at www.ezroane.com/ntsri/;

      — North American Shetland Sheepbreeders Association at www.shetland-sheep.org;

      — National Miniature Donkey Association at www.matrixdm.com/nmda/;

      — American Dexter Cattle Association at www.dextercattle.org;

      — American Livestock Breeds Conservancy at www.albc-usa.org or 919-542-5704;

      — American Cotswold Record Association at 617-585-2026;

      — Leicester Longwool Sheep Breeders Association at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation at 757-229-1000; and

      — Continental Dorset Club at 401-647-4676.


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