Maine Farmers Providing Ark for Critically Endangered Breeds

May 12, 2014

Most people probably know that the giant panda, the Siberian tiger, and the Northern right whale are in danger of dying out. But what about the Leicester Longwool, the Suffolk Punch, or the Mulefoot Hog? Those are farm animals that appear on a list of critically endangered domestic breeds. Biodiversity in the world's farmyards is shrinking, say experts, and that's not a good thing. But efforts are underway to - pardon the pun - take stock of these critters. And Maine's small farms might serve as an ark for them.

  "Harry! Emma! Come!" Eighty-seven-year-old farmer Paul Birdsall prefers actual horse power over the torque of a John Deere. "This breed is committed to maintaining their working integrity."

This strong, stocky, chestnut horse is known as a Suffolk Punch. It's a rare breed of English draught horse that dates back to the early 1500s. Only a small handful of farmers still use them.

Birdsall used to plow with other, more common draught breeds, but over the years, they've been bred more for show instead of work. Think Budweiser Clydesdales. While huge, fuzzy-footed horses look gorgeous in parades, Birdsall says they're not so practical for farmwork.

"So that's why I went and made the conscious decision to get into Suffolks, which meant pretty much having to have mares and breed my own," he says.

Finding a pair of pure, classic Suffolk Punch for breeding 40 or 50 years ago was almost impossible, says Birdsall - the horse was on the brink of extinction. Today, the Punch is hanging on, thanks in large part to the Amish farms that dot the Northeast from Maine to Ohio.

But it's still one of nine critically endangered equine breeds listed with the Livestock Conservancy. That's a North Carolina-based nonprofit that's trying to protect the country's so-called heritage breeds.

"The heritage breeds were really designed to live on small farms," says Ryan Walker, of the Livestock Conservancy.

And that's why Maine, might be uniquely suited to offer refuge to the nearly 200 breeds of livestock and poultry that are on the watch list, Walker says. It's not hard to imagine why a draught horse might find itself out of a job in these modern times, but chickens and cows are also at risk.

Take, for example, the endangered Chantecler chicken. It can withstand harsh, cold winters. Drought-resistant Pineywoods cattle can forage on twigs and scrub land in extreme heat. But Walker says the hardy traits that make these animals useful for a backyard farm are no longer as useful in the carefully controlled conditions of a factory farm or feedlot.

"Commercial agriculture has sort of taken out the enviornmental element," he says, leaving production levels as the prime genetic consideration.

Gary Anderson, with University of Maine Cooperative Extension, says today, big agriculture is all about making more food for less money.

"In 1926 the average chicken produced 126 eggs per year," Anderson says. By 1955 that same White Leghorn variety, through selective breeding, was producing 188 eggs per year. Today, the W-36, a hybrid hen created by agribusiness Hy-Line International, lays 240 eggs per year.

And, says Anderson, the hen does the job with less to eat. Sixty years ago, it took more than 7 pounds of feed to make a dozen eggs. "Their bird can do it in 2.8," Anderson says.

So, heritage breeds have lost out to farm animals that can produce a lot of quick, cheap food. For example, Jerseys, Devons, Shorthorns and Guernseys have been pushed out by high-producing Holsteins, which now make up more than 80 percent of all the dairy cattle in the U.S.

That means shrinking biodiversity. Just three breeds of big, fast-growing hog now dominate the pork industry, and it's a similar story with sheep.

"Once an animal is extinct you really can't put it back together again," says Joanne Meyers. That's why Meyers established a preservation farm in Waldoboro, where she's providing an ark for some of the most critically endangered sheep, goats, horses and ducks. And there's a small piece of good news in the barn; a California Variegated Romeldale lamb has been born.

Joanne Meyers: "There's probably only about 500 of them in the United States, and they're only in the United States."

Jennifer Mitchell: "And this is a wool breed?"

Joanne Meyers: "Yes, this is a wool breed."

"There's lots of reasons to conserve endangered breeds of livestock, but a big reason is for farmers to have some choice in what they raise, for what purposes,"

And with at least 27 percent of livestock breeds in danger of becoming extinct worldwide within a few years, according to a 2007 United Nations food study, that choice seems to be shrinking - and, along with it, all the beneficial genetic traits those breeds possess.

Ryan Walker of the American Livestock Conservancy points to the Irish potato famine, where a million people starved when a blight wiped out one single variety of potato on which the country's food supplies were based. The message, he says, is simple: Don't put all your eggs - or meat or milk - in one basket.