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Introduction

 
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Why Study Rare Breeds?

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Why Study Rare Breeds?

Animals have always been part of the human experience. Over the centuries and around the world, animals have had profound influence on the cultural and economic development of human society. Of particular importance have been the animals that live closely with people – the domesticated species, especially farm animals. These animals provide food, fiber, and a wealth of services that are important to agriculture even today.

Farm animals in America include cattle, horses, donkeys, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. Within each of these species are many distinct breeds, somewhat equivalent to the sub-species of wild animals. Throughout history, a large number of farm animal breeds have been used. This diversity has provided a broad base for agricultural progress and success.

Today, changes in agriculture have led to specialization of farm animals. In each species, the most productive breeds are now used to the exclusion of all others. For example, in the United States, one breed of dairy cattle (the Holstein) produces almost all of our milk; a single breed of chicken (the White Leghorn) lays nearly all of our eggs; and one turkey variety (the Broad Breasted White) is used for almost all of our turkey meat. Three breeds of pigs account for 75% of all purebred piglets born each year, and four breeds of sheep make up about 60% of all the purebred sheep born annually. To use an old adage, all of the eggs have been put into a very few baskets.

As a result of this concentration on a few breeds of farm animals, other breeds are now declining. In the United States alone, about one hundred farm animal breeds are rare, and some are so rare that they may become extinct. Among the rare breeds are Milking Devon cattle, Dominique chickens, and Navajo-Churro sheep, all of which are historic and unique to the United States. We share a history with these animals; our stories are interwoven.

The importance of rare breeds goes beyond their historic status to their genetic significance. Many of these beautiful animals have unique traits and skills. Their genetically based, complex characteristics are no longer found in commercial breeds today. Climate adaptation, forage efficiency, hardiness, longevity, and maternal abilities: such specific adaptations allow these wonderful animals to thrive in a variety of environments, to offer useful services (digging up roots, weeding gardens, eating pests, clearing shrubbery), and to produce unique products (natural fibers, dairy products and meat).

Genetic diversity in a species means strength and health for that species. If rare breeds within a species become extinct, that species will have lost some of its potential. It may be less able to adapt to changing environmental conditions or less useful for changing human needs. Even the most sophisticated biotechnology cannot create new genetics; what we have today is what must be saved for use tomorrow.

 

Noah's Ark Today is property of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
Copyright 2006.

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, PO Box 477, Pittsboro, NC 27312