Adam Henson: Eat meat and save a breed

The status of the Gloucestershire Old Spots breed is still precarious, with fewer than 500 breeding

The status of the Gloucestershire Old Spots breed is still precarious, with fewer than 500 breeding sows in the UK - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘Without drastic action we could see the extinction of some of the UK’s traditional cattle, sheep and pigs’

If you want to save Britain’s rare breeds, eat them. Yes it does sound like a riddle, but it’s a serious message that is being pushed hard this summer. With the barbecue season getting underway, conservationists really do want meat-eaters to buy Old Spot sausages, Gloucester beef burgers and Cotswold lamb. It comes after the release of the latest figures showing how our native breeds of farm animals are faring in 2018. Every year the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) publishes its Watchlist, which is a kind of livestock census, detailing exactly how many breeding females are registered in the UK. And it’s not good news. The charity is seriously concerned that without drastic action we could see the extinction of some of the UK’s tradition and county breeds of cattle, sheep, pig and horse. The RBST isn’t puling any punches; “These rare breed animals are going to end up as dead as a Dodo unless their numbers increase dramatically.”

The five breeds at most risk of extinction are Vaynol cattle, Suffolk and Clydesdale horses and two pig breeds; the British Landrace and the British Lop. Vaynols are classic white cattle from North Wales but with only 12 breeding females their situation is desperate. The Suffolk was the all-purpose working horse of East Anglia, the Clydesdale is another popular draught horse from Scotland, while the British Landrace and British Lop are both white pigs famous for their floppy ears.

So how are our three local, county breeds doing? Well sadly there’s been no improvement in the status of Gloucester cattle and Cotswold sheep which are still both ranked in the ‘At Risk’ category. There are fewer than 750 Gloucester cows in existence while Cotswold ewe numbers are below 1,500 nationwide. The future is looking only slightly better for the Gloucestershire Old Spots pig. Numbers are up marginally on last year but the fact remains that the status of the breed is still precarious with fewer than 500 breeding sows in the UK. For Old Spots appearing on more dinner plates could make all the difference.

If you’re still scratching your head trying to work out how eating native breeds will save them from extinction, the answer lies in simple economics. The more people ask for Longhorn beef, Berkshire pork or Herdwick lamb by name, the more retailers will want to stock it. That’s not just butchers but also high street food shops, out-of-town superstores as well as farmers’ markets. The message then gets out that there’s a business opportunity which in turn encourages farmers to invest in new breeding programmes. It can even lead to the creation of entirely new flocks and herds. Within months numbers go up, driven by demand. The same is true when it comes to rare breed milk, ice-cream and especially cheese. Helping the cause could be as easy as picking up Single Gloucester at the cheese counter; it’s a slice of our local heritage (literally) and the cheese can only carry the Single Gloucester name if it’s made on a Gloucestershire farm from the milk of Gloucester cows.

Eating breeds to save them might be news to some people, but in fact the message dates back to the early days of the British Rare Breeds movement. In the 1950s and ‘60s we were in the heat of the post-war drive towards highly productive, fast-maturing intensive livestock breeding. That meant there was no room for the vast majority of our traditional domestic animals. Thankfully attitudes slowly changed in the ‘70s. My dad, Joe, became the founding Chairman of the RBST in 1973 and was soon telling anyone who would listen about the need to create a market for rare breeds, to ensure they had a viable future. After 45 years that message hasn’t changed, but now, more than ever, it’s time to take action.

For more from Adam Henson, follow him on Twitter! @AdamHenson

Visit the Cotswold Farm Park website here.

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