We’ve come a long way! The Livestock Conservancy was founded at a kitchen table in Vermont in 1977, and continued as a volunteer, grassroots organization for several years. The first paid employee, Libby Henson, launched both a literal and figurative journey of discovery for the fledgling organization. Henson’s famous 18-month road trip of breed discovery followed closely in the footsteps of similar work in the U.K. by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (founded by Libby’s father, Joe Henson), and marked the first step in the Discover, Secure, Sustain model of conservation. Farms re-discovered on that trip remain stalwarts of conservation today.
The effort to re-discover forgotten livestock breeds included the first breed census, and the first Conservation Priority List (CPL) was published in 1986. Hence, the principles by which we still conserve livestock today were founded in the first ten years.
Many of the breeds on that first CPL were ill-defined, and the CPL was refined over the next several years through breeds research. Fundamental principles were established – a long history in the United States, global census, and the continuing existence or extinction of foundation breeds. After 40 years, census and the CPL are proven tools for categorizing breeds and prioritizing conservation work.
In the 1980s, breed definitions evolved by studying the animals and their breed histories. Through this research some breeds were consolidated. For example, it became clear that Wooden Leg and Tennessee Fainting goats were the same breed. During this time the CPL changed frequently to accommodate the growing understanding of breeds in America. More recently, DNA studies have helped define breeds that have overlapping histories. When breeds share common ancestry and histories, DNA analysis helps demonstrate whether or not they are genetically distinct from their closest kin. Breeds that were added due to DNA testing include Florida Cracker sheep, Newfoundland ponies, and Lincoln Red cattle. On the other side of the coin, the genetic distance among strains of Colonial Spanish horses is close enough that they are considered to be a single breed, even those strains that have distinct cultural identities.
Breeds such as Icelandic chickens and Arapawa goats were added to the CPL when sufficient numbers came to the U.S., yet they remain endangered in their native lands. In a sense, these additions are troubling, because they represent genetics that are disappearing from their country of origin, and strong populations at home are always the best-case scenario for breed conservation. Imagine if we needed to rely on other countries to help conserve Cotton Patch geese, for example. Nevertheless, when the American population of rare breeds constitutes a significant portion of the global population, they are listed on the CPL and we strive to conserve them.
Number of Breeds on the Conservation Priority List: 1986 to 2017*
*Rabbits were added to the mission in 2006.
Poultry were added to the mission in 1987, and rabbits in 2006. Poultry and rabbits are approachable “gateway” animals for new farmers, in part because they can be raised on small properties for minimal expense. Today, poultry make up more than a third of the breeds on the CPL. The growing interest in raising poultry over the past decade has caused the majority of these breeds to be promoted from Critical and Threatened to the Watch category because they are productive additions to homesteads and backyards.
When the “Recovering” category was added to the CPL in 2000, it was envisioned as a home for breeds that were no longer considered endangered. Over time this original concept was lost, probably because appearance on the CPL is taken to indicate that the breed remains rare, and these breeds continue to be monitored. More recently a true “graduation” process was established for breeds that no longer need to be monitored, when annual registrations exceed 5,000 or global numbers exceed 15,000.
Notable successes include Katahdin sheep, Nigerian Dwarf goats, and Orpington chickens. The utility of these breeds on small farms is now well established, and breeders who helped make this happen can take pride. For many breeds on the CPL, success means that they resisted probable extinction. Would Heritage turkeys, Mulefoot pigs, Milking Devon cattle, or San Clemente Island goats exist today if not for the work of The Livestock Conservancy and its dedicated members? Heritage swine and rabbits have been on the upswing for the last ten years. Most breeds of cattle have been static for several years, while equines have declined and their future is bleak.
In 2017, most breeds are holding steady and there are few changes to the CPL.
The American Chinchilla rabbit moved from Critical to Threatened. American Chinchillas have found a growing niche as a meat rabbit for homesteading. Hardy and gentle animals, they produce large litters and have good mothering instincts, and fryers reach market weight quickly.
The American Chinchilla was adopted into the standards book in 1924 and in its early days, was a true American success story. Americans Edward Stahl, Jack Harris, and others decided to add more size to the Standard Chinchilla rabbit for better meat yield and larger pelts. The advantages of this new breed were recognized immediately, and more than 17,000 American Chinchilla rabbits were registered in 1929 alone. The breed declined after 1945, along with most other rabbits. It is heartening to see this breed’s fine qualities recognized once again.
The Ancona duck will be now designated as an American breed. For many years its origin was speculated as being British. After extensive searches in the United States and Great Britain, all the information that has surfaced points to the breed having been created in America. The strongest piece of evidence comes from an article published in the 1913 edition of the Water Fowl Club of America Yearbook. In it, W. J. Wirt of Ridge View Farms in Knowlesville, New York announced the development of a new breed of duck he calls the “Ancona,” named after the Ancona chicken, that was developed from a combination of several standard breeds of duck. Shortly after the appearance of this article, Anconas began to be entered into poultry shows in the Northeast. The February 1915 issue of Poultry Item magazine and the 1915 American Poultry Yearbook announcements include two first-place wins for Ancona ducks in a Boston show by Willdum Duckery of Rowley, Massachusetts. All of this evidence points to an American origin in the early years of the 20th century.
The Ancona is a hardy, adaptable, all-purpose duck. It is an excellent layer and can lay more eggs than many popular dual-purpose chickens. The Ancona also grows relatively quickly and produces lean, flavorful meat. Anconas are well suited for situations where they can forage for some of their food, and under normal conditions they do not tend to stray from home.
Barbados Blackbelly sheep moved from Recovering to Watch. This hair sheep breed evolved on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean from crosses of African hair sheep with European wool breeds brought to the island during the Colonial period. Sheep imported from Barbados in the 1970s form the foundation for purebred Barbados Blackbelly sheep in the United States. Earlier imports were crossed with Mouflon and other breeds to create the horned American Blackbelly. That 20th century composite is sometimes confused with Barbados Blackbelly, but does not appear on our CPL.
This year’s change in conservation status reflects the difficulty in obtaining accurate sheep census from Barbados, where loss of habitat and crossbreeding with other sheep are thought to have eroded the population. There may now be moves toward greater conservation efforts in Barbados. A brand new Barbadian registry documented 700 in January 2017; however, accurate total numbers remain unknown.
Barbados Blackbelly sheep thrive in hot, humid environments that are challenging for most sheep. They have also proven adaptable to colder climates. Characteristics that make them appealing for pastured or range production include year-round lambing, prolificacy, ability to thrive and reproduce on marginal forage, and disease- and parasite-resistance.
Some of the strains of Colonial Spanish horses resume individual listing on the Conservation Priority List. Some strains have active conservation breeding programs separate from the other strains, and breeders find it useful to have these individually listed. A few of these strains are numerous enough that maintaining them in long-term isolation is realistic, although each will require close monitoring of genetic lines and rates of inbreeding. Strains with relatively small numbers, however, are unlikely to succeed with conservation in complete isolation over multiple generations. This means that the overall Colonial Spanish breed, consisting of individual strains as well as carefully chosen strain crosses, remains an important focus for conservation efforts, because these strains are all close cousins within that one breed.
Clydesdale horses moved from Watch to Threatened. Interest in horses as recreational and working animals has declined significantly for several decades, as have global equine populations. Annual registrations of Clydesdales in the US are now estimated at roughly 250 per year, and the global population has fallen below 5000. Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are the most significant homes for Clydesdale horses.
Clydesdales were traditionally used for all types of heavy hauling. Their attractiveness and size led to use in promotional hitches, and their use by the Anheuser Busch Company dates to the end of prohibition in 1933. All who have seen them on television or in person know that Clydesdales combine strength and style. While many of today’s taller Clydesdales are marketed for exhibition, there is renewed interest in more compact horses for farm and ranch work and as riding animals for trail and Renaissance fairs.
In this our 40th year, join us in celebrating the Conservation Priority List, the work of those who have censused breeds throughout these years, and the breed registries that maintain the vital records from which the list is drawn.
Rabbits: American Chinchilla