On the International Day for Biological Diversity, its worth going back to first principles, and reflecting on what we mean by “biodiversity” We generally use the word to refer to just wild plants and animals, but it actually covers much more than that – including domestic species such as livestock.


The UN Convention on Biodiversity defines the word as meaning the “variability among living organisms from all sources”, so in short, its not just wildlife, its everything living. 


This was reflected in the Goals and Targets the UK signed up at the Kunming-Montreal Congress, COP 15, in December 2022.  


Goal A required that “The genetic diversity within populations of wild and domesticated species, is maintained, safeguarding their adaptive potential”


Target 4 goes on to require signatories to maintain and restore the genetic diversity within and between populations of native, wild and domesticated species to maintain their adaptive potential, including through in situ and ex situ conservation.


So how is the UK doing on meeting these obligations?


The JNCC’s annual Biodiversity Indicators 


The Indicators, using the measure of Effective Population Size, which takes account of both numbers and the level of inbreeding, show that according to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation criteria, no livestock species are below the threshold giving cause concern for their long term survival – although of course, most conservation programmes generally aim higher than the survival of the species.  

Moreover, the position is rather different at the level of individual breeds. The JNCC finds that of the UK’s native breeds defined as being at risk, two breeds of goat (Old English Goats, Saanen), four breeds of horse (British Percheron / Percheron, Cleveland Bay Horse, Eriskay Pony, and Suffolk Punch), one breed of sheep (Herdwick), two breeds of cattle (Northern Dairy Shorthorn, Vaynol), and one breed of pig (Landrace) all have an Effective Population Size which does give cause for concern for their long term survival.

The only specific native breeds policies aimed at improving livestock conservation are those set out in each country’s new agriculture policy, in England Environmental Land Management or ELM. The ELM option for native breeds is limited to supporting members of breeds identified as being at risk which graze grassland, moorland or lowland heath, which should have some impact on the cattle and sheep breeds, but clearly not all the breeds of concern.

We need to do more.