Britain’s native farm animals may be rarer than giant pandas
BTHE SON OF RITAIN the policy was successful. In 1955 the government sponsored an “improved bacon pig” to help revive the ailing pork industry. A few breeds competed for the role but it was the portly Large White, which piles on weight quickly and does well indoors, that was up for grabs. Today, even-plumper descendants of the Large White feed industrial pig farms up and down the land.
The dominant hand on the Great White brought disaster to another pig. Dorset Gold Tips and Lincolnshire Curly Coats became extinct. Others continue with their trotters. The Central White, a smaller sibling of the Great White, is five times rarer than the giant panda. Only 56 sows had litters of registered pigs in 2022.
No such thing is unusual among the native farm animals of Britain. The logic of entrepreneurship and efficiency means that some breeds thrive and others suffer. Around 80% of Britain’s native stock is at risk of being lost forever. Often the female breeding population is not small: 63 Hampshire pigs; 22 white cows; 13 Old English Goat. The survivors live on a handful of farms.
But the luck may be looking up, due to diet, day tourists and requests for diversity. To increase the numbers of rare breeds, they must be eaten again. Chefs seem excited: They rave about the Longhorn beef’s “nutty, grassy, blue-cheese notes” and “fat dripping from everything” while cooking Mid-White pork. Heston Blumenthal, a restaurateur, named the Longhorn steak the best steak in Britain in 2006; his fans celebrated so enthusiastically that by 2012 the numbers had doubled.
Other pieces of rare species can have a monetary value. James Rebanks, a shepherd in the Lake District, weaves cloth from the wool of Herdwick sheep. Their magnificent horns are made into walking sticks and buttons. Smart farmers are turning native breeds into brands, notes Christopher Price, head of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), charity.
That attracts day tourists. Chillingham Wild Cattle Society, a charity in Northumberland, offer private tours of their herd. Neil Storer gets half of his profits from visitors to Baylham House Farm in Suffolk, where he breeds White Park cattle, which have been kept in Britain for more than 2,000 years. On the Knepp Estate, a 1,400-hectare wilderness project in Sussex, Longhorn cattle and Tamworth pigs graze freely. Agricultural policy in time should encourage further reforestation: the government stops subsidizing per hectare and pays more for public benefits such as the preservation of native material.
Genetic diversity is one reason such conservation is valued. Herds of identical pigs can be efficient but are vulnerable to disease: if one animal gets infected, the whole population can be lost. China’s farmers were reminded in 2019 when African swine fever killed 180m pigs (a quarter of the world’s population). The RBST has created a gene bank, a large freezer of semen and embryos, to preserve most of the native breeds as a defense against disease in the future. With luck, it won’t be necessary.