Rare breeds’ integral role in the future of sustainable farming

Christopher Price took up the reins as the new CEO of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) earlier this year, moving from the CLA and bringing to the role a clear understanding of the challenges and issues facing livestock farming

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) exists to conserve and promote native UK livestock breeds. These are breeds that were bred to thrive on whatever natural nutrition was available in their locality and their management helped form the landscape on which they lived.

When RBST was founded, the challenge was to save native breeds from extinction. Although many breeds were attractive in themselves and had played a significant part in agricultural history, this issue was not just heritage, it was also about maintaining genetic diversity.

Nowadays, we have a clearer understanding of the importance of conserving this. Earlier this month, the UN’s much publicised report on biodiversity had a whole section stressing the threat to global food security from the loss of local breeds and varieties of livestock.

It rightly highlighted that this loss of diversity and a narrow gene pool risks undermining the resilience of many agricultural systems to threats such as pests, pathogens and climate change.

RBST has carried out several projects to support native breed pig populations, mainly by establishing fresh populations of individual breeds around the country so as to reduce geographical concentration.

However, we need to do more as every native breed of pig is still classified as rare. In particular, thanks to a grant from the Gerald Fallowes Discretionary Trust, we will shortly be launching a project to revive the fortunes of the endangered British Lop.

The project will run over the next five years, in association with the British Lop Pig Society (BLPS), Deerpark Pedigree Pigs and other partners, and will include genomic work, new boar semen collections and advanced embryo work.

The overall aim of the project is to enable us to fill the UK National Gene Bank for the breed, and thereby hopefully secure the future of the British Lop forever. This will be the ultimate insurance policy to ensure future genetic diversity and for current conservation breeding to produce new lines.

Native breeds are integral to British heritage and the genetic pool they represent is fundamental to the future of sustainable livestock farming. Native breeds represent a huge diversity of genetics. We need that diversity and the pivotal role for RBST is to safeguard it for the future.

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