Sunday, January 29

Hackney horses at risk but native goats thriving in the UK | Environment

While hundreds of Hackney horses once elegantly clip-clopped around London pulling carriages, the breed is now dying out because that mode of transport is no longer used.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) annual watchlist has highlighted the breed as at risk because there are just 31 breeding females left in the UK.

Native goat breeds, however, are doing particularly well and have even become a popular pet. Farmers are also trialling older English goat breeds for a more sustainable way to produce milk and meat.

Each year, conservationists behind the RBST Watchlist track the number of animals in each native breed. They focus on ensuring the future of domestic breeds, pointing out that many of these are now part of the country’s landscape and important for biodiversity.

Hackney horse numbers have fallen below 50, which is set as a threshold for concern by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The breed, which already had very low numbers, has seen further decline over the past year, with just 31 females producing registered progeny from only 12 breeders. This compares with more than 300 breeding females registered in 2011.

A Hackney horse and carriage at the Royal Windsor horse show in 2021. Photograph: Maureen McLean/REX/Shutterstock

Christopher Price, the chief executive of RBST, said: “Unlike many of our native equines they don’t have a contemporary use – many [other breeds] can be used in forestry work and that sort of thing. For most, carriage-pulling is more of a hobby. People should keep them because they are part of our biodiversity, part of our history.

“The UN charter of biodiversity imposes a need to sustain both native and kept breeds. Farmed and wild animals have an equal conservation imperative. We can sustain this population but far better if we can get more people keeping, using and registering them.”

However, Price was keen to note that many breeds of cattle and goat were thriving because of the changing nature of farming. While in recent decades continental breeds, which grow to huge sizes when given supplementary feed and warm housing, have been the norm, native breeds that need less food and warmth to thrive are becoming more popular.

Although there is an “element of pets and novelty” in keeping goat breeds including Old English, Bagot and Guernsey, many are being kept for their meat and milk by farmers because they need little food and shelter.

Price explained: “As farming is changing with subsidies going, they are surviving by diversifying and creating a niche product. It’s hard to keep high-input breeds with subsidies going and people are looking more for low-input species. And goats are pretty low-input as they don’t need all the supplementary feed and vet bills that many continental breeds need. Our native breeds were bred to thrive in farming systems that we had at the start of the century – more low environmental impact and low input.”

Other breeds doing well include Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, which are becoming popular for use in rewilding projects, as well as native species of cattle.

The RBST watchlist

animals at risk

  • Large White pigs: Large White pigs are moving to the highest priority level on the watchlist. The breed used to be hugely popular and was used to develop lots of commercial breeds. According to the British Pig Association, almost every pork joint in the supermarket today will have some degree of Large White in its genetic makeup. In 1954 the number of licensed boars recorded was 16,751, which represented 76% of the total male pig population. Data from the BPA shows just 66 boars recorded in 2021.

  • Hackney horse and pony: these horses and ponies were once highly sought after for pulling carriages.

  • Norfolk Horn sheep: One of the oldest of the UK’s sheep breeds, by the 1890s there was just one flock left. Numbers are now healthier but the significant decline this year in numbers of breeding dams and progeny is very worrying.

  • Gloucester cattle: Gloucester cattle remain a major concern with a decline in the number of dams exacerbating concerns about lack of genetic diversity and geographic distribution.

Improving fortunes

  • Native breed goats: with goats becoming increasingly popular to keep, the UK’s four native breeds (English, Old English, Bagot and Guernsey) have all had a year of stability or growth.

  • Lincoln Longwool sheep – the breed remains in the priority category but there has been an increase in effective population size and number of breeders.

  • Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies – the West Country breeds have seen an important increase in the number of dams, which is crucial to managing inbreeding.

  • Vaynol and Albion cattle – both remain priority breeds, but their numbers saw significant improvements in 2021.

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