CEO Christopher Price discusses the positive impact that the Agriculture Bill introduced at the beginning of the year could have on the work of RBST:

For the last 40 years the conservation of our native farm livestock and equines has been entirely due to the hard work of a few dedicated tenacious individuals. There are few conservation organisations that can claim that nothing has gone extinct since they were founded, still less that it is entirely because of the activities of its own members.

But in England at least, with the new Agriculture Bill, that’s all set to change. In future our native breeds will have some help from the Government.

This is something RBST has been pressing for over many months.

The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments will be making their own decision, though RBST will be encouraging them to adopt a similar approach to England. We are already working closely with the Scottish Support Groups in making the case.

The aim of the Bill is to shift agricultural policy towards paying farmers for the various public benefits they provide, rather than paying them for simply owning land, as is the case with the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), the current scheme for supporting farmers.

Most of the public benefits mentioned in the Agriculture Bill are environmental, such as improving water and soil quality, or to mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, the list also allows the Government to pay for: ‘conserving native livestock, native equines or genetic resources relating to any such animal’.

The explanatory notes to the Bill give an indication of the sort of things the money could be spent on:

‘These measures could, for example, be used to incentivise farmers to invest in rearing rare and native breeds or species, because these genetic resources may offer a way to sustainably increase food production and/or improve our capacity to adapt to climate change or the emergence of new animal or plant diseases by providing a breadth of genetic traits. These powers could also be
used to incentivise existing gene banks to safeguard UK native and rare breed genetics or to provide on farm measures to manage disease risks amongst populations of rare breed livestock.’

So, the scope of power is very wide, perhaps surprisingly so. It allows for the support of all native livestock and equines. There is no requirement that they are rare, or that they are a member of a recognised breed or even registered.

Unlike the situation with BPS, there is no requirement to hold a certain amount of land.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the government will be giving money to everyone who owns a native animal. They will be deciding priorities and devising one or more schemes each with its own eligibility criteria and rules to deliver on them.

But it does mean that we can go back to first principles and work out what we really need government to do to help turn around the fortunes of our native livestock and equines.

Moreover, the power to directly support native livestock and equines is not the only one of interest in the Bill. There are also powers to give financial assistance for new entrants, improving productivity and support for marketing. RBST will be pressing government to use these powers to both help revive the local abattoir network and promote the full range of native livestock produce.

The changes won’t happen overnight. BPS will be phased out over seven years starting in 2021 and the new schemes will be phased in over the same period. As yet, we do not know how much money will be involved.

Nevertheless, we have put together our own list of things the government could do to support our native breeds:

Support all the ways in which native breeds are conserved...

Whilst farmers and smallholders do most of the conservation work, there are other drivers:

• Gene Bank: The Gene Bank contains rare semen and embryos used to maintain genetic diversity and as insurance against the loss of genetic materials in the event of a disease outbreak. Unlike its equivalents in most countries, it is entirely funded by private donations.
• Bespoke projects: Some breeds require bespoke conservation programmes to restore their fortunes. At present these projects are entirely funded by generous individuals, which is a signinificant limitation on what can be done.
• Farm Parks: The network of Approved Farm Parks is an essential conservation resource. They have the capacity to carry out co-ordinated conservation projects and to ensure that valuable breeds are dispersed across the country. They do what zoos do for wild animals. Most are owned by local authorities or charities and so struggle for funding.
• Advice: Keeping native breeds requires knowledge and expertise and the main source of advice is other farmers and breeders and the organisations that represent them - but providing advice involves time and money. Funding for providing advice should be available to a variety of providers, not just public officials.

Promote conservation grazing:
The meadows and pastures that we value so much came into being because they were grazed by our native livestock. If we want to restore them, or even create more, we should be incentivising farmers to keep native livestock.

In addition, native livestock, with their unusual appearance, horns, long coats, colours etc add to the quality of the landscape. The countryside is a more interesting and attractive place.

Save abattoirs:
We have farmers willing to produce niche, low impact, high welfare native breed products, and we have consumers wanting to buy those products. It is therefore frustrating that we lack the network of abattoirs to bring them together.

Where there are abattoirs, they are often so far away that the journey compromises welfare and, in any event, many cannot process non-standard animals. So even if you have an abattoir on your doorstep, it may be of no use to you.

Where abattoirs still exist, government should invest to enable them to cater for native breeds, often small numbers of animals with thick coats and horns. Where there is no abattoir, government should invest in mobile or popup abattoirs until longer term solutions are in place.

No discrimination on holding size:
With BPS farmers cannot claim if their holding is less than 5ha. This threshold needs to be much lower under the new scheme to ensure the necessary incentives to conserve our native breeds are in place.

If we are to maintain the breadth of genetic diversity, we need a variety of different sized farms to be keeping them. Whilst the owners of larger holdings can often maintain large numbers of animals, a larger number of holdings each with fewer animals is better for the maintenance of genetic diversity.

Accordingly, we need to ensure that farmers of all scales are equally incentivised.

Invest in the Gene Bank:
Gene banks are an essential way of conserving genetic materials that may be necessary for future breeding, whether it’s to introduce new traits that help breeds respond better to climate change or disease, or to help restore or recreate a breed whose numbers have collapsed.

In the vast majority of countries, the government funds the national gene bank. In the UK the government funds the Millennium Seed Bank, but not the Gene Bank. This is funded entirely through RBST using its own resources. This needs to be addressed. 

- Christopher Price, CEO
~ Ark Magazine, Spring 2020