So I wrote last week about the way our animal tagging system practically requires calculus to figure out! And the natural question is why in the world go through all that instead of just giving them names?!!
Well, the fact is that we’re not just running these animals for meat and wool. We’re working with rare and endangered livestock breeds and doing our little part to conserve these breeds and their genetics from extinction.
These are some of our original Hog Island Sheep, a critically endangered breed of sheep.
Just like wolves, tigers and the barking tree frog…except with less fan mail.
There are 100s (25 sheep breeds alone!) of livestock breeds on the priority conservation lists managed by the American Livestock Breed Conservancy. Some breeds, like Hog Island sheep are considered critically endangered. And while technically that means less than 2,000 estimated in existence in the world, Hog Island Sheep would be lucky if there’s 1,000 pure bred left in the world. 500 would be more like it–and even that’s being hopeful.
Saving each and every animal becomes crucial with numbers that low.
And some, like our Clun Forest sheep, are considered recovering, which means numbers are stable, but not safe.
Heritage breeds tend to be hardy, easy-keepers that are perfect in small farm settings.
It’s individual breeders, breed associations, and non-profits like historic properties and living history museums that are bringing these animals back from the brink. And the key to success is willing people and paperwork.
We’ve worked under very exact systems (like our Clun Forest group) and we’ve worked under extremely loose systems (like our Hog Island group) and I’ll take the stricter one any day when you’ve got these long-range genetic preservation goals in mind.
Most of our laying chickens are priority breeds as well, like this Buff Orpington rooster.
The North American Clun Forest Association (NACFA) is an amazing group of people committed to these sheep and are one of the main reasons why this breed made our short list (and eventually our final list) when we started researching a second heritage breed to work with. They are organized. They are helpful. And they are record keepers.
Using the ear tattoo system, NACFA is able to track and compare key traits like longevity, number of lambs, and health defects for 1,000s of animals over generations (which for a sheep is just a year) and in multiple countries. Several breeders are active in importing semen from the UK to improve our stock and diversify our genetic pools when we see they’re getting to limited. This is very expensive and time consuming, but inbreeding cross-eyed, rickety sheep certainly isn’t going to help save the breed. This is careful, serious work. The more rare the breed, the more serious it is.
Numbers and tags are not a replacement for knowing each of your animals...
Hog Island sheep have been found to be prone to malignant nasal tumors, which return even after removal, and eventually kill the sheep. Without clear and careful record keeping, the breeders’ group is struggling to piece together whether it’s a genetic or an environmental trigger causing it, which ram bloodlines are most prone to it, and if there’s some way to stop it from decimating the breed as a whole.
...But a well documented record-keeping system puts a wealth of information at your fingertips if your farm's goal includes more than just producing lamb chops.
So now you see that if I name my sheep Sally and someone in Ottowa names their sheep Sally, and we both turn in registration papers the same year, there’s no way to know who’s who in 5 years and everything we might know about their genetic history basically gets lost in the confusion. Unless they each get an individual number at registration time. Thus the tattoo in the ear–their registration number. It’s like the sheep’s Social Security Number.
No matter where she goes, what farm she lives at, or even what country she lives in–we know who that sheep is, who she came from, and whether or not her lambs are too closely related to our lambs be bred successfully 4 years later. Because with these rare breeds, sometimes we don’t have many breeding animals to choose from. (Yep, some of our sheep are second generation UK. It adds an odd accent to their Baaaaa.)
And this way I can tell you anything you want to know about what you're eating. Way more than the label "organic" would.
As a producer, there’s lot of reasons to choose–or not choose!– a heritage breed. (I could write a book, but it’s been done. Several times.)
And as a consumer you hold a lot of influence over the continuation of these breeds by what you buy and who you buy from. Just ask your farmer–I’m sure they’d love to talk your ear off about it!