It won’t have escaped readers’ notice that RBST is celebrating its 50th anniversary and it has long been the Trust’s proud boast that since its formation in 1973, the UK has not lost a single native breed. Credit for this success, however, doesn’t – and shouldn’t – lie solely at RBST’s door. that since its formation in 1973, the UK has not lost a single native breed. Credit for this success, however, doesn’t – and shouldn’t – lie solely at RBST’s door.

The successes, sometimes hard won, have been down to experts who have pushed the boundaries in the fields of genetics, dedicated breeders and supporters, and the breed societies that represent our diverse and numerous native livestock and equine breeds. Increasingly, in a rapidly changing agricultural environment, RBST’s role has moved to that of an umbrella organisation, looking at the big picture and taking a holistic approach to the conservation of Watchlist breeds.

As regular readers will know, RBST’s current focus is on helping find markets for native breed products where we can, and lobbying each of the UK governments to ensure that the conservation and promotion of native breeds is a core part of their new agricultural policy.

When it comes to individual breed conservation, however, it is the breed societies which should be taking the lead.

Breed societies are generally at their most visible at shows, which form an essential shop window for their breeds, but their role is not just about showing it’s also about ensuring a viable future for their breed. In fact, in order to be officially recognised by Defra, a breed society must obtain approval for its breeding programme as part of its application. To obtain approval a society needs to have a breeding programme for each breed maintained and relating to this:

•      Provide information about the selection criteria

•      Explain the breeding objectives

•      State where in the UK the programme will be carried out (England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland)

•      Explain how individual breeding animals that meet the identification standards of the species will be identified

Breed societies are vital in the conservation of our livestock and equine breeds; they are far more than simply clubs for people who happen to like a particular breed.

An excellent example of what can be achieved when a breed society throws its weight behind a conservation programme is the Cleveland Bay, a breed that by the 1990s had experienced a significant loss of genetic diversity. It was perhaps fortunate for the Cleveland Bay Horse Society that Dr Andy Dell was a member whose passion for horses, with the Cleveland Bay his breed of choice, led him to the development of SPARKS (Single Population Analysis & Records Keeping System).

The Society embraced his system, formally launching a breed management programme at the start of the UK breeding year in 2004; although participation in the programme is voluntary, with the encouragement of the Society, the level of compliance with SPARKS has steadily increased. With foal registrations being relatively maintained, a study has shown that the rate of inbreeding has slowed considerably, with the effective population size rising from 20 in 1994 to more than 140 in 2020.

RBST has worked closely with Dr Dell to promote a wider use of SPARKS and a number of other equine breed societies have introduced the system and are making substantial efforts to communicate and promote its use to their members. Other species’ societies, with the support and encouragement of RBST, are also actively exploring the use of SPARKS.

This shows how the relationship between RBST and breed societies should work. While RBST offers help where it can, we are acutely aware that the key intermediaries between the Trust and the breeds and breeders are the breed societies that represent them.

By producing the annual Watchlist, RBST is able to give an overview of the current status of each of our native breeds and when it becomes evident that one of the priority breeds has need of urgent attention, we can flag up the fact that action needs to be taken. But it is not the role of RBST to act unilaterally. In order to rally the support for an individual breed, we need the relevant breed society to be on board with us. This is what happened in 2022 when the Watchlist highlighted the growing decline in Gloucester cattle and RBST worked with the Gloucester Cattle Society to develop an event aimed at promoting the breed to farmers and food producers by demonstrating its multiple qualities as a dual-purpose breed.

Breed societies act as a source of information and advice, they are the guardians of breed standards and they work to promote and raise awareness of their breeds. Some also offer practical support on the marketing front. The Portland Sheep Society, for example, has a marketplace section on its website where members can advertise meat and fleece sales. Most societies advertise stock for sale.

Breed societies vary enormously in size of membership, which impacts on the resources they have available. Some have paid staff, while many rely on the efforts of volunteers. Some have been able to produce marketing materials for the use of their members. All of this contributes to the promotion of individual breeds and is something that RBST could not do nor would it seek to. We are not here to try to duplicate the work of breed societies, but we do see them as valuable partners.

Breed societies are able to work at the grass roots level, with breeders, to see that the appropriate conservation programmes are in place to ensure that our native breeds survive and thrive. Today, RBST’s role is increasingly focussed on ensuring that those breeds have a place in modern farming, land management and care of the natural environment.

We are not looking to duplicate the work of breed societies, we are looking to support it. We continue to work with the governments in each of the four home nations to ensure that policies to address the needs of our native livestock and equines are properly recognised and addressed in each country’s new agricultural policy. We are working to ensure that it is understood that native breeds do not just provide benefit for their owners, that they benefit everyone.

Breed societies exist to promote, preserve and improve their particular breed. By adding their voice to that of RBST, breed societies can play their part in ensuring that there is more support and a place for those breeds.

Christopher Price, CEO - Summer ARK 2023
Photo - Tregoyd Mares