Following a visit to the UK in December 2022 by representatives of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), RBST Senior Conservation Adviser Tom Blunt was invited to take part in a workshop on farm animal genetic resources in Norway in April.  The workshop was organised by NordGen Farm Animals in collaboration with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

NordGen is the joint gene bank and knowledge centre for genetic resources in the Nordic countries and its mission is to conserve and promote the sustainable use of genetic diversity of animals, forests and plants important to Nordic agriculture and forestry.  As in the UK, the Nordic region has seen a decrease in its native livestock breeds, including the loss of some breeds, in the face of intensification and industrialisation.  The workshop aimed to highlight the urgent need to conserve Nordic native breeds, many of which are now classified as threatened.  With the various countries having their own conservation plans for genetic resources, one of the discussion points was whether there is a need to establish a central Nordic gene bank.

In his address, Tom Blunt explained the background to the decline of native breeds in the UK, the work of RBST, Watchlist methodology and RBST’s strategy of in-situ and ex-situ conservation activities.  He also explained the various breeding strategies employed in the UK, including the use of SPARKS and kinship analysis, using the examples of the Cleveland Bay and Combined Flock Book breeds to illustrate the impact this has had.

Other UK speakers involved in the workshop included representatives of Stallion AI Services, Gemini Genetics and the charity Nature’s SAFE,  and UK CryoArks, a UK-wide collaboration that has created the UK’s first comprehensive zoological biobank for research and conservation.  There were also representatives of some of Europe’s leading universities, the Norwegian Association of Sheep and Goat Breeders and the French Poultry and Aquaculture Breeders Technical Centre.  Topics included the monitoring and reporting of breeds, approaches to gene banking, conservation and breeding projects for specific species and some of the technicalities involved in gene storage.

Commenting on what he was able to take away from the workshop, Tom says:  “None of the countries involved had a non-government organisation comparable to RBST but what was clear was that the other countries represented had a national strategy with a lot of government funding to support the work being undertaken.  For example, in Norway, the key elements of the breeding strategy for cattle breeds is an increase in numbers and management of inbreeding which forms part of government policy.  The pedigree database for all breeds is owned and managed by the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) and registration is free of charge with breed grants for keeping rare breeds available to those who register.

“Broadly, the conservation activities in the different countries were similar in approach although none have yet moved on to the methodology of recording breeding populations now used by RBST in the compilation of the Watchlist; the norm is still a system of recording breeding females rather than considering effective population size.

“One specific point of interest for RBST related to poultry.  In France there is a French Poultry National Cryobank which collects semen and is working on the use of cryopreserved PGCs (primordial germ cells) for the restoration of the complete genetic heritage of poultry breeds.  While we cannot currently carry out poultry gene banking, this is an area to be explored, particularly in light of the challenges currently facing poultry breeders.

“Overall, this was an excellent opportunity to present the work of RBST on an international stage and learn about the approach being taken in other countries.”

Caption:  Conference speakers  Maria Kjetså, Jaana Peippo, Mervi Honkatukia, Tom Blunt and Ian Mayer.

Examples of endangered Nordic breeds

Dola cattle

Dola cattle originate from Gudbrandsdalen, Østerdalen and Hedmarken, areas to the north of Oslo with nutrient-rich grazing.

In the 1880s, the principal of Jønsberg Agricultural School, Norway’s oldest agricultural college, began to breed Dola cattle, aiming for more uniformity in the breed with black horned cows with a brown stripe along the back. The Jønsberg type gained a good reputation and was of great significance in the further development of the breed.

After World War II, the Dola cattle experienced a major decline with the introduction of Norwegian red cattle. Today, most of the Dola cattle originate from a herd in Fåvang in Gudbrandsdalen.

At the beginning of the 1990s, there were only 25 individual animals left. Based on reports to the European Registration System, Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS), this was reported to have increased to 96 cows in 1996 and to 170 in 2002 but had fallen to 121 in 2011 although there is some uncertainty about these figures. In 2020, for the first time since the registration began in the ‘90s, more than 300 breeding females were registered, and the breed moved category from “critically endangered” to “endangered”.

Researchers are working to identify the specific characteristics of the Dola cattle, and up to 2019, 15 easily accessible studies that include Dola cattle have been carried out. The majority of the studies deal with molecular genetic diversity but one deals with socio-economic aspects. The study examines co-evolution between milk protein and human lactase. In 2021, a new study was published that looked at the composition of oligosaccharides in milk for various Nordic cattle breeds. Oligosaccharides are sugars in milk that should be good for health and can be especially beneficial, for example in a breast milk substitute. The Dola cattle emerged as one of the breeds with the highest level of the favourable oligosaccharides.

Photo:  Anna Holene

The Faroese horse

Brought to the Faroe Islands by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries, the geographical remoteness in the North Atlantic forced these horses to adapt to their surroundings. Only those that could withstand the weather survived and the Faroe Islands became home to a breed that was strong, hardy and agile. With DNA testing, it has been concluded that the Faroese horse is a separate and pure breed.

The horses were used by farmers and occasionally for transport between villages. Most of them lived freely up in the mountains all year with no managed breeding. Export of the horses to coal mines in Britain, combined with agricultural modernisation on the Islands resulted in the breed becoming nearly extinct. In the 1960s, there were only five Faroese horses left; one stallion and four mares. A rescue operation was launched to preserve the breed which included an export ban that still applies today. All the horses found in the Faroe Islands today are descended from those five individuals.

Photo:  Cécile Zahorka

Old Spæl

Old Spæl stems from Old Norse, on which today’s spæl (short-tailed) breeds were based. Old Spæl and the modern-day spæl breeds shared a more or less common history until around 1950 since when, the so-called modern Spæl sheep have been bred for colour uniformity and polledness, with more emphasis on size and meatiness than on wool quality. Old Spæl was not officially recognised as a distinct breed until 2002, although it has had committed supporters since the 1950s. These enthusiasts have tried to minimise crossbreeding with Old Norse or modern spæl sheep in order to maintain the old spæl type.

Photo:   Anna Rehnberg