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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Antique Sheep

Air Date: Week of

Humanity today is witnessing the greatest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs demise. Most of the vanishing breeds are wild, and many are found in remote locales like tropical rainforests. But some threatened species live much closer to home, in farmyards. About 30 percent of the world's domestic animal breeds risk extinction, the United Nations estimates. And their figures suggest that each week, one domestic animal species is lost forever. Some efforts are being made to stem the tide. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman visited a farm in Maine which is saving threatened livestock for future generations. The genetic diversity of farm animals is also rapidly shrinking, perhaps putting our food supply at risk. To fight this trend, some farmers are raising what they call heirloom livestock.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Humanity is today witnessing the greatest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs left the planet. Most of the vanishing breeds are wild, and many are found in remote locales like tropical rainforests. But some threatened species live much closer to home, in farm yards. About 30% of the world's domestic animal breeds risk extinction, the United Nations estimates, and their figures suggest that each week one domestic animal species is lost forever. Some efforts are being made to stem the tide. Living on Earth's Daniel Grossman visited a farm in Maine, which is saving threatened livestock for future generations.

(A cock crows; other animals chime in)

GROSSMAN: A stately farm house sits at the crest of a hill surrounded by a white picket fence in a neat green pasture. Inside a barn, the air is heavy with the sweet smell of manure.

(A sheep bleats)

GROSSMAN: A barrel-chested man named Lee Straw wrestles with a creamy white sheep.

(A shaver motor runs)

STRAW: My left hand pulls the skin, will grab a leg, pull it up. And when that leg comes up it'll tighten its skin along the shoulder, so I can go down over it without cutting it.

GROSSMAN: The entire fleece is on the floor in minutes. Nearly a dozen farm hands arranged in a sort of disassembly line are helping out, guiding the shaggy ewes into the steel shearing pen, leading the scrawny shorn ones off.

(A gate creaks. A sheep bleats.)

GROSSMAN: A crowd of youngsters from the farm's day camp look on.

CHILD: After they get sheared, their hooves get clipped so they're shorter. And they give them worm medicine that takes all the worms out.

ANOTHER KID: Disgusting. Ugh.

GROSSMAN: There are 6 breeds of sheep here at Kelmscott Farm in Lincolnville, Maine. The farm is dedicated to raising rare breeds of livestock, breeds that were once common but have gone out of style. It also raises awareness of the plight of these threatened breeds with tours and a nature camp.

CHILD: Beth, do the sheep like getting sheared?

METCALF: Um, probably they would like eating grass better. But it's something that has to be done.

GROSSMAN: The center of attention today are the Cotswald sheep. Robin Metcalf, who founded the farm in 1995, says they're steeped in history.

(Sounds of shearing, bleating, children shouting)

METCALF: These sheep, the Cotswald sheep, is a very, very old breed of sheep that came up from the Romans to England during the Roman occupation. And it became the basis of their wool industry during the 1500s and 1600s. Then this wool was sold to the continent, and the tax revenues that came from the sale of this fairly large wool industry really created a booming economy during that period.

(Shearing and bleating continue)

GROSSMAN: Until about 50 years ago, Cotswalds were common in the US as well as England. But they aren't good meat producers, and the demand for their coarse wool slumped as artificial fibers gained popularity.

METCALF: They dropped down in England to about 60 of these sheep left in England, about a comparable number here in the United States, around the 1950s and 1960s.

GROSSMAN: Then some ranchers realized the breed was in peril and pitched in to halt its slide.

METCALF: And now there's probably 1,500 of them in the UK and 1,500 of them in the United States.

GROSSMAN: The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy tracks rare farm animals in the US. It reports that about 50 such breeds are teetering on extinction. Many have disappeared already, including the Davis Victoria hog and the Narragansett pacer, one of the first horses developed in this country. For Robin Metcalf, one important reason to save these animals is to keep a piece of the world's agrarian heritage.

METCALF: They reflect the history that created them. You can look on the hillside here and see landscapes that many of the kings of England looked out their castle keep and saw with the sheep grazing away. Today, things, whether they're on the computer or whether they're on a movie screen, it's never the real thing. And, you know, these are the real thing.

(Bleating; fade to indoor setting)

METCALF: All right, so let's just summarize what we're doing here. Perry, you're doing sort...

GROSSMAN: In a rustic building adjoining the farm house, Robin Metcalf hands out chores the next morning. Part entrepreneur, part cowboy, she wears a pocket knife and a cell phone.

METCALF: And then, Acelia, you're doing pigs, and so the thing is perhaps Acelia, you could help Perry with some of these...

GROSSMAN: In addition to sheep, Kelmscott is home to nearly 2 dozen rare breeds: rabbits, poultry, goats, cattle, pigs, and horses, including a shire horse descended from the steeds that bore English knights to the Crusades.

METCALF: Okay, let's go, cause we've got that meeting coming up.

GROSSMAN: One of Robin Metcalf's tasks is to visit Penny, the farm's new piglet. Penny's not herself today. She's had a poor appetite.


METCALF: Penny, Penny, lie down. Here, Penny, Penny. (Grunting from pig) Oh, you're a good girl. What are you up to, huh? (Grunting from pig)

GROSSMAN: Penny, a Gloucestershire old spots pig, is now only the size of a small dog. But adults in a nearby pen weigh several hundred pounds. Big ears flop over their eyes and a dozen or so round, black patches, some the size of a dinner plate, cover their backs.

METCALF: Well, the Gloucestershire old spots pig is the oldest spotted pedigree pig in the world. And it was very popular, you know, in the beginning part of this century, up until the time when lard became a bad word, you know, right after the war, where everybody wanted low-fat foods. And nobody wanted any animal that was associated with the word lard.

GROSSMAN: Today consumers want meat that's lean, not fattier old spots pork. The story is similar for all these rare animals. In part, they've been shoved aside by breeds that have finer wool or leaner meat. They've also been a casualty of the transition from family farming to factory farming. Mammoth corporate ranches with national markets need a single, uniform product.

METCALF: We all know that most of our milk all comes from Holstein cows. We know that there's just a few breeds of pigs that produce all of our pork. And there's just 1 or 2 hybrid breeds of poultry that produce our broilers and fryers and all of our eggs.

GROSSMAN: These breeds are awesomely efficient at making milk and meat and eggs, but Robin Metcalf worries what would happen if any of them came under assault from an untreatable disease, the way the Irish potato crop was decimated by the potato blight 150 years ago.

METCALF: We need to have a genetic back-up plan.

GROSSMAN: And that's one key reason why historic farm animals still have a role to play, because genes from the livestock at farms like Kelmscott could be needed some day to fight an unforeseen epidemic, or to create breeds with traits not valued today. It's happened before. Today's grocery store chicken was developed in the 1930s by crossing a Cornish cock with a white rock hen. At the time, Cornish chickens were uncommon, and they were mostly in the hands of bird fanciers.

METCALF: (Talking to Penny) What is it, huh? (Grunting from Penny)

GROSSMAN: Robin Metcalf may be sitting on a genetic gold mine. But for now she makes do by charging admission to visitors and by selling products to niche markets, like hand-spinners who want stiff Cotswold wool and restaurants which prize exotic meats. She compares a juicy slice of old spots pork to a tasty home-grown tomato. The farm teaches a new generation of kids the value of historic breeds, and the students are listening.

(Sheep bleat)

CHILD: Most of the animals here are very rare. So, people can come and see them here at Kelmscott and learn about 'em. And maybe, if they see the rare breeds they'll say maybe I'll raise some. So there are more and more.

GROSSMAN: And that's exactly what's happening. Three years ago there were only 4 Gloucestershire old spots pigs in the country, living on just 3 farms. Today, through the work at Kelmscott, a dozen farmers nationwide tend 90 old spots. And Robin Metcalf says conventional breeders are expressing interest in the spotted porkers. One farmer recently began crossing old spots with a commercial breed, a union that yields a larger litter of piglets and no runts.

(Many sheep bleat)

GROSSMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Daniel Grossman.



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