Over the past year, we have marked RBST’s milestone 50th anniversary by celebrating the story of our charity and the heritage of our native breeds while placing them firmly in the context of modern farming. While looking back with pride, we are also able to look forward with confidence that our native breeds are re-establishing their place in the UK’s farming environment.

When RBST was founded, ‘modern’ farming was all about the drive for productivity, with the focus on producing more food, faster. Some traditional breeds had already disappeared, others were heading that way. Against this background, the founders were dedicated to preserving the genetics and traits represented by our diverse native breeds ‘because one day we might need them’. Arguably that day is approaching – or perhaps it has already arrived.

Historic deal

At the start of last year, we had seen a historic deal being struck to halt the global loss of global biodiversity by 2030. The UK was one of the signatories to the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Conference agreement, the Global Biodiversity Framework, which contains a series of goals and targets to tackle nature loss this decade. Amongst the key provisions within the framework there are several that relate specifically to RBST’s areas of interest, the most pertinent being that “the genetic diversity within populations of wild and domesticated species is maintained, safeguarding their adaptive potential”.

As I said at the beginning of our anniversary year, RBST now has to look beyond saving the valuable genetics of our native breeds to ensuring a wider understanding of just why they are valuable highlighting their ‘adaptive potential’. To do that, we must find markets for their products where we can, lobby government for support and, for those breeds of priority concern, work with their respective breed societies to turn things around. These aims have been the drivers of the various activities we have been involved in over the past year.

The commercial opportunities and environmental benefits of keeping native breeds were showcased at our series of 50th anniversary events hosted at Rheged in Cumbria, The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, Jimmy’s Farm and Wildlife Park in Suffolk, and Tannaghmore Farm Park in Northern Ireland. We even took our message to the Houses of Parliament for a 50th anniversary reception, discussing with key Ministers how our native breeds can fulfil their potential in food, farming and environmental management today and tomorrow. We held a series of pop-up events, alongside the Foundation for Common Land, highlighting the crucial roles of our native livestock and equines on the UK’s upland commons. And I give warmest thanks to the many volunteers who manned RBST stands at agricultural shows up and down the country, encouraging people to find out more about our charity and what we do.

Going from strength to strength

RBST’s work on conservation projects went from strength to strength throughout 2023. Our three-year Equine Conservation Project, funded by the Horserace Betting Levy Board, reached the end of its first year with population reports now created and a public reproduction survey helping us to drill down into the issues breeders are facing and to create plans to help. Semen analysis has been carried out on 62 historical samples held in the Gene Bank to ensure high quality for breeding decisions. We’re looking forward to the project’s next phase in 2024, which will include the production of a best practice toolkit for breed societies.

Now into its third year, our Native Poultry Project continues to work to increase numbers and genetic diversity of identified priority poultry breeds, with clan breeding programmes with Marsh Daisies and Derbyshire Redcaps showing strong results. With the ongoing impact of avian flu, 2023 was a very difficult year for poultry breeding overall, and projects such as these are more important than ever to the future of these rare but important breeds.

The RBST Watchlist is created each year through the meticulous gathering, assessment and analysis of a raft of essential data related to population numbers, genetic diversity and geographic coverage. It helps us to identify trends and breeds of concern early and informs our conservation project planning. It also provides us with key data for engaging with Government and helps us raise public awareness about our native livestock and equines, why they matter and what it takes to secure their survival.

The Watchlist we published in 2023 reinforced our concern for several of our rare native pig breeds such as the British Landrace, following the wider pig crisis of the past few years. Other breeds of high current concern include Llanwenog and Castlemilk Moorit sheep, Gloucester cattle, Eriskay ponies and the Suffolk horse. The 2023 Watchlist gave us better news for the Dartmoor and New Forest pony breeds, the Large White pig, the UK’s four native breeds of goats, Albion and Northern Dairy Shorthorn cattle, and the Greyface Dartmoor and Norfolk Horn sheep breeds, all of which are seeing positive trends of population stability or even growing numbers after periods of decline.


An important milestone in 2023 was Government’s announcement of a new Small Abattoir Fund, which we report on in this issue. In recent years we have intensified our work seeking this type of support for small abattoirs and it is very promising that we are seeing both the desire for change and also significant funding. Our work on this issue continues in 2024, looking to ensure the Fund has a real benefit on the ground for native breed farmers.

We have another full and ambitious programme of activity lined up for 2024, including a range of conservation projects focusing on the rarest Priority category breeds; crucial additions to the National Gene Bank; and pioneering research projects. We will be engaging closely with politicians and policy makers, both before and after the General Election, on the development of any policies impacting our native breeds or their keepers’ opportunities to help them thrive.

We have been proud to mark RBST’s 50th anniversary year in 2023. We celebrated the fantastic RBST members and supporters who bring such enthusiasm, skill and energy to our mission, and we spread far and wide our message about why the UK’s native livestock and equine breeds matter.

Christopher Price, CEO, Winter ARK 2024
Cover Photo : Rachel Addison