Rare Breeds Briefing – A Conservation Strategy

The first “Rare Breeds Briefing” discussed why we need to conserve our native livestock, part of what is known as “Agrobiodiversity”.

This briefing considers who needs to do what, and what a native breed conservation strategy should look like.

Who needs to do what?

The conservation of our native breeds is not just a matter for Government. A whole range of stakeholders have a part to play, including farmers, breed societies and conservation organisations.

Individual farmers

Private farmers are the main owners of livestock. They keep them to make money from their produce, they therefore need to ensure they are keeping the most appropriate breeds for their business. Native breeds were created for a British landscape, they are well adapted to live outside where they can thrive and utilise a wide range of landscapes. With cattle and sheep, keeping the right breed, in the right place, at the right density and feeding the animals on grass should keep input costs down. Similarly, pigs should be kept outdoors, where they can forage, and so gain at least some of their nutritional requirements naturally. 

Farmers should look to all the produce their animals can provide, not just food, meat, milk and eggs, or fibre: wool. There are also markets out there for skins and horns that can improve margins.

Effective marketing, emphasising provenance and welfare, is always essential and should help both differentiate the product and attract a premium price, returning the value to the producer.

Breed Societies

Breed societies exist to promote the long-term wellbeing of their breeds. They have a major role to play in establishing breeding programmes and taking the necessary steps to ensure that these are delivered effectively. About 80% of native breeds already provide annual data for conservation analysis, but everyone needs to do so – even allowing for the reporting challenges faced by poultry keepers and hill sheep farmers.

Organisations such as RBST should encourage interaction between farmers, breed societies and others and generally raise awareness of the importance and value of native breeds.  We need to work closely with Government on the development of schemes such ELMS, and with initiatives such as the Livestock Information Service (LIS) through the Traceability Design User Group (TDUG).

Conservation organisations

Many nature conservation organisations own land which is managed by conservation grazing. Native breeds are particularly suited to this. Firstly, it was generally those breeds that created the habitats being conserved, they were once pasture land, and secondly, being smaller and lighter than continental breeds they are particularly good on sensitive swards and wetter ground.

This is on top of the overarching needs to conserve agrobiodiversity and meet the desire of the public at large to see our native breeds protected, including as part of our cultural heritage.


Government has overall responsibility for ensuring the UK meets its obligations under the Biodiversity Convention and the Sustainable Development Goals. It needs to oversee the development of the national strategy for livestock conservation; ensure we have appropriate and proportionate regulation in place and coordinate activities with appropriate stakeholders.

Government must also ensure the necessary infrastructure is in place, such as gene banking facilities and a comprehensive network of local abattoirs.

Finally, Government has a role to play in providing funding, training, marketing and facilitating collaboration between stakeholders.

Levy Boards

Native breed farmers pay their levy in the same way as other farmers, and whilst they of course benefit from the Levy Boards’ general work on behalf of the livestock sector, the Levy Boards in turn need to devote more of their resources to maintaining the genetic health and diversity of our native livestock breeds.

As we leave the EU and move to an unsubsidised, more market-facing world, we need to tackle the challenges of climate change and changing attitudes towards meat consumption. Our native breeds with their hardiness, thriftiness, provenance, and potential to provide premium products will become increasingly important. AHDB has a major role to play in making the case.

Features of a national conservation strategy

The conservation of native livestock breeds must be a standalone policy objective in itself, not supplementary to other policies as is currently the case with Countryside Stewardship, under which breeds are only conserved on the basis of their grazing qualities, not for their intrinsic merits. 

Whilst native breed conservation is a fundamental part of wider biodiversity policy, it cannot be addressed by biodiversity policy alone. Policy levers available in other areas should also be used, for example the tools for promoting local and traditional produce used in food policy.

The policy should include the provision of financial support.  

  • Area payments, enhanced for breeds at greatest risk, will encourage farmers and others to keep native breeds as a direct public good as well as for sustainable farming.
  • Headage payments in isolation can create perverse incentives and should be avoided.
  • Capital grants should be used to facilitate the use of targeted breeding strategies.
  • Capital grants should also be used to support the provision of relevant ancillary infrastructure, such as small local abattoirs.

Support should be available to all keepers across the country. Many of our native breeds have strong local connections or were bred to thrive in a particular locality. Accordingly, every farmer should be encouraged to keep their local breed.

However, support must not be restricted to only local breeds. To preserve the genetic heath of a breed, it is important that animals are not geographically concentrated.

There must be no size of holding below which grant aid is not provided. Much native breed conservation is carried out on a small scale.

There must be no “active farmer” type test. An important segment of native breed conservation is carried out by conservation NGOs and other landowners whose primary focus is not food production.  Encouraging two-way discussion and partnerships between these land managers and the relevant breed societies should improve expertise and reduce costs.

It must be easy to record progress and results. All eligible animals must have a unique identifier number that can be used to measure progress in increasing the size and genetic diversity of populations, hence full utilisation of the LIS.

Through incorporating these points within our future policy, we will create a sustainable, commercially productive and world-leading environment for our native breeds of livestock.