Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry

Think what living history farms and historic properties could do for the genetic pool of livestock and poultry if even a quarter of the 19,500+ historic sites or houses, historical societies, historic preservation groups and history museums in the country participated in some way in conserving Heritage Breeds.

But don't think this view and this practice is just about history. It's about environmental sustainability.

"Agriculture has changed more in the past century than in the last 10,000 years. In both developed and undeveloped countries diversified farming based on adaptation to local conditions", the authors write, and is being replace by standardization most often including adaptations for confinement, standardized feeds, and selection for very specific traits (meat or egg production, for example). The more multi-purpose, versatile, and lower-maintenance animals of the past have begun to die out for lack of interest  - - often based on perceptions of reduced value. Well, in a time of changing climate and decreasing genetic diversity, it's clear that local adaptability and a broad gene pool predisposed for adaptability are a good idea.

The Livestock Conservancy and Storey Publishing have given us An Introduction to Heritage Breeds: Saving and Raising Rare-Breed Livestock and Poultry, an excellent and much-needed how-to for those of us who haven't thought enough about this aspect of our work. It's a safe starting place for beginners, and a great promotional and educational tool for the more experienced among us who could use support educating our peers and funders. The writing makes no assumptions about prior knowledge yet speaks to the reader respectfully. (The book is only $19.95: buy it for your bookshelf and then stock it in your gift shop for all your homesteading visitors.)

The term 'Heritage Breed' focuses on unique adaptations in an animal based on local conditions. Think about it - if you wanted to have livestock on your site, wouldn't the stock best-suited for your region and your mission make the most sense?  The cattle, goats, sheep, swine and poultry that have adapted to the landscape and living conditions of your area are the ones who will have the best survivability, physical comfort, and resource productivity for the least effort. We're talking Spanish Black Turkeys, Navajo-Churro sheep, Red Wattle pigs, and Cleveland Bay horses.

These are not static breeds. Their value is their adaption to local conditions, so continued adaptation is appropriate. It's the animal's role in human-managed agriculture that we're preserving, not the exact traits of a time long ago. That might be hard for some purists to accept, but it reflects the times we live in. Your weather and climate conditions are changing; isn't it important to be working with the breeds most likely to be able to adapt to changes with less intervention on your part?

Caring for, protecting and supporting Heritage Breeds is not just for specialists or history museums, it's also for small-scale farmers interested in livestock raising. So, if you're interested in promoting sustainable living among your members and community supporters, this topic is a perfect opportunity for public engagement. If you're getting questions about "what kind of chicken should I keep", does your answer consider an appropriate heritage breed? Well consider that the bulk of the conservation work is already being done by individuals in our communities. These private champions have taken responsibility for rescuing, stabilizing and promoting rare breeds. Don't let them go it alone.

Certainly some museum leaders are pulling their portion of the weight on this: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Plimoth Plantation, Accokeek Foundations, and The Farmer's Museum, but isn't it time historic sites and museums stepped up their conservation work in the manner of zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens in their areas of mission and expertise? If you can safely and responsibly care for these animals in alignment with your mission while increasing public engagement, then it's an opportunity to be taken seriously.

What's in your barnyard?


1 comment:

  1. "An Introduction" is quite accurate. At 240 pages with photos taking up half of the book, it is not a resource for detailed information on how to house or raise these animals - especially four-legged stock. As a breeder of American Mammoth Jackstock, I recommend that those interested in a particular heritage breed consult more comprehensive books available.