As you drive around our beautiful country you can see cattle of all sizes and shapes. Delicate, doe-eyed Jerseys; rangy, angular Friesians; placid red and white Herefords with their tightly curling facial hair. You don't have to travel far afield before you spot a few shaggy-coated Highlands, two-tone Belted Galloways or even pint-sized Dexters. They all have their place and they all have their fervent advocates. But if it were left solely to commercial considerations, we may not have this diversity at all.
Luckily lifestyle farmers don't face the same pressures as commercial farmers to make every decision on a commercial basis. This means that lifestyle farms are ideal places to keep breeds of animals that might otherwise die out, along with their valuable genetic diversity. Which puts lifestyle farms throughout New Zealand on the front line in the battle to save rare and heritage livestock breeds.
For hundreds of years commercial farmers have selectively bred livestock to improve their commercial characteristics. Sheep yield more wool, cows yield more milk, pigs yield more pork and hens lay more eggs than ever before. It's good for the wider agricultural industry but for some traditional breeds of livestock it's a death knell. A few breeds come to dominate the agriculture industry while others fall by the wayside.
Many traditional breeds have already died out. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), estimates that during the 20th century, about 16% of livestock breeds died out and 15% became endangered as a result of selective breeding.
Why should we care?
- Heritage breeds are usually robust and well adapted to local conditions which means they can be farmed with less intensive input.
- While some of the genetic traits of rare breeds are not fashionable now they may be wanted or needed in the future. They may carry genes that could help them (and us) to adapt to challenges in years to come.
- Today's commercial breeds are suited to today's environment but if that environment changes then we need somewhere to go for new genetic diversity. A shallow genetic pool will limit our options meet new environmental or disease challenges.
- In the same way that heritage seeds produce fruit and vegetables that can seem less bland and homogenous than we can find at the supermarket, heritage livestock breeds have unique traits that can still be appreciated. If their genetics are allowed to die out, we may miss the chance of making a great medical advance, or just the chance to eat a delicious niche meat.
For some information on the various rare and minority breeds check the Rare Breeds website.