last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another Heaven
and another Earth must pass before such a one can be again."
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ALBC’s Actions: The Conservation Paradigm
ALBC’s work can be visualized as a pyramid. At the base is our mission, and each side is made up of our primary objectives: Discover, Secure, and Sustain. It is these three core elements that save a breed.
Saving breeds depends on multiple steps, and failure in any one of them assures failure of breed survival. These steps can be summarized as discover, secure, sustain. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) has found these steps to be useful in breed rescue and conservation, as each step has specific tasks that must be done, and specific pitfalls that must be avoided if conservation is to succeed. ALBC has used these three steps for over 30 years in helping breeders to save breeds.
Discover is the first and a very important link in the chain. “Discover” means finding rare breeds, out there, in the fields and woods and barns where they have quietly survived for generations. Discovery is most dramatic, and most essential, for landraces and feral populations. These important populations can be discovered many different ways, sometimes they just pop up, other times they are noticed as part of a system using other more recognizable rare breeds, and very frequently they are discovered when someone mentions the old guy down the road with some interesting animals.
It takes research to figure out if newly discovered animals might in fact “be something.” The assessment depends a lot on context – the place and the history of both the people and the animals involved. Assessment also requires a good close look at them. Does the herd or flock reflect the history of origin? Is there a consistency of breed type across all the animals? Does the history fit what is seen in the animals, and does it fit the area? Do the animals fit the biological definition for a breed?
Answers to these basic questions will determine if a new breed has indeed been discovered (this happens very, very rarely) or whether a previously unknown herd or flock of a rare breed has surfaced (a rare occurrence, but more common than discovering an overlooked breed). A census and documentation of characteristics occurs at this stage, too – including both the obvious external features, and the subtle adaptive traits that can mean the difference between surviving in compromised environments… or not. At this stage DNA analysis can greatly help in assessing the significance of a newly discovered population.
Secure. This second step requires science, politics, collaboration, and a hefty portion of luck. The goal of the “secure” link in the chain is to prevent further genetic erosion, by setting up a plan that encourages breeders to conserve all of the genetic diversity found within the breed. This begins by figuring out the structure of the breed population. How is each herd or flock relates to the others? How are the animals related to each other? Oral history and human movement answer these questions. Pedigrees, when kept, contribute significantly to understanding breed structure. Molecular or DNA analysis can help at this stage as well the discovery phase. Breed strategies are devised that maintain bloodlines but protect against the loss of health that occurs with inbreeding. Securing a population requires that people work together. Breeders may be brought together by tradition, but also by excitement and novelty. To be successful the breeders absolutely must work together to save the animals in the same environmental and cultural context in which they have been developed. Sometimes that last bit is possible, sometimes it is not. Breed associations, registries, promotion and marketing, all come out of this human collaboration.
Sustain. This third link in the chain is where a breed can really take off and succeed. The breed has been secured genetically, and has been stabilized with regard to population structure and genetic variation. With smart thinking, patience, and respectful cooperation, breeds can grow into valued components of our agricultural and food systems. During this step we see new people get interested in the breed, and they need education on husbandry, breeding, and genetic resource management to effectively manage the breed for a secure future. They need information about how to navigate the regulatory issues of converting living animals to human food. Equally important, they also need help with marketing, and often bring great enthusiasm and fresh ideas to this critical but potentially troublesome aspect of breed promotion. New and old breeders alike also need help at this stage in thinking through all of the stages a breeder goes through in a lifetime career with a breed. These include the frequently overlooked topics of herd reduction or liquidation so that the breed doesn’t slip back into the perilous stage that it knew before steps one and two brought it from the brink of an obscure slide into extinction.