- · vol. 2 · no. 3 · April 2002




"When Plimoth launched its search for breed documentation in 1986, researchers found little to work with . . . "

Gems in the Pasture
Pamela H. Sacks

Part I | II | III | IV

No such thing as overkill

Although foot-and-mouth disease has remained common in large regions of the world, last year's outbreak in England presented the significant possibility that the virus would reach these shores. And those familiar with several decades of efforts to save heritage breeds from extinction would aver that no amount of caution--especially in the museums that have been in the forefront of the movement--could be called overkill. Indeed, in certain circles, talk of the Wiltshire sheep, with its gracious, curved horns, or the Milking Red Devon cow, with its deep color and gentle nature, is just as passionate as wildlife advocates' discussions of the peregrine falcon or the snow leopard. Farmers, scientists, historians, educators, and conservationists are banding together in the campaign to preserve as many as one hundred breeds of domesticated animals that were once as common as corn in August but are now perilously close to disappearing from our world.

Fig. 2. Milking Devon cows have a gentle nature. Photograph courtesy of James P. Sacks.

The extent of what was at stake when foot-and-mouth emerged this past spring can be taken as a testament to the preservationists' success. As recently as the mid-1980s, when Plimoth embarked on its quest for animals that would reflect the qualities of their colonial counterparts, there was a fair share of skepticism about saving rare breeds. Yet today it is acknowledged that the accomplishments of the conservationists and their colleagues in the labs could be important to the safety of commercial livestock. In many instances, the gene pools of cattle, pigs, and sheep have been diminished as farmers have bred their stock with the sole aim of increasing productivity. This has resulted in compromised immune systems. If a commercial breed were to be hit by a devastating epizootic disease, the genes of a hardy rare breed could be used to help re-establish the immunity of a commercial one. At the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, scientists are looking into establishing a repository to hold semen, embryos, and cells for future studies. "I want enough genetic diversity in the library so that a whole breed could be revived at the same time," said Dr. George Saperstein, a livestock veterinarian.

When Plimoth launched its search for breed documentation in 1986, researchers found little to work with; early settlers had left few specifics behind about the livestock that accompanied them from England and the Netherlands. What did exist were sketches in documents concerning the "division of cattle" in May of 1627, which ended the colony's holding of livestock in common. The animals were described as "two black cows, a red cow, a white backt cow and four black heifers." The Kerry cow, an ancient English dairy breed, and the Milking Red Devon were tapped to represent their black and red forebears. The plantation's staff found that the Kerry was a near match for a black cow described by seventeenth-century British livestock authority Gervase Markham, who wrote that it had "hair like velvet, large white horns with black tips," and added, "They are of stately shape, bigge, round, and well buckled together in every member, short joynted, and most comely to the eyes." Sheep and hogs presented an even bigger challenge. The Wiltshire Horn sheep of colonial days was smaller and hardier than the modern type, which has been developed as a hefty meat producer with little or no fleece. Getting the right look, or phenotype, meant using more than one breed. The farming staff crossed the Wiltshire with the Dorset Horn, a small breed with a heavy wool coat. On the swine front, the Tamworth hog, a reddish-colored lean and hardy forager, was crossed with a European boar to produce the Iron-Age pig, which is covered in coarse hair and is one-third the size of its normal domestic counterpart. While farm records of the period contain little information about goats, they were a primary source of milk and meat for early settlers. To represent this tough little animal, Plimoth has imported and bred the Arapawa Island goat of New Zealand, an endangered breed that most closely resembles the now extinct Old English Milch goat.

Fig. 3. A Milking Red Devon cow enjoys a fall day in the pasture at Coggeshall Farm in Bristol, R.I. Photograph courtesy of James P. Sacks.

But Plimoth wanted its breeding program to be more than fleece deep. "In our quest for the most accurate recreation of a seventeenth-century type," the farm staff wrote in 1993, "we must not lose sight of the importance of maintaining the genetic material found in these older breeds." There is little question that the Kerry and Milking Red Devon were--and still are--in dire need of saving. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit group that strives to protect historic lines from extinction, rates each as "critical," with fewer than two thousand animals alive. The sheep are better off--but not by much. The Wiltshire is termed "rare," with fewer than five thousand in existence, and the Dorset, with twice as many alive, is in the "watch" category. As a result, the farm staff has devised a program in which the two breeds are crossed for looks and also are maintained independently in order to preserve their genotype. The same is true of the "rare" Tamworth pig and the European boar.

Plimoth's program aggressively attempts to marry historical accuracy with the concerns of preservation. Other institutions have chosen simpler paths. Although Colonial Williamsburg has had domesticated animals since its founding in 1926, farm manager Elaine Shirley said the museum did not worry much about whether the animals were close cousins to their ancestors. When Williamsburg launched its rare breed program sixteen years ago, it had one thing in mind: preserving genetic diversity. In focusing on genotype, rather than phenotype, it managed, rather serendipitously, to introduce more historically accurate breeds into its population.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, the breeding of livestock was dramatically changed by Robert Bakewell, an English agriculturist. Until then, livestock was either of a type common to a region or of no particular description at all. Bakewell bucked a taboo and inbred a type of sheep found in Leicestershire to accentuate certain desirable characteristics. In doing so, he hit upon the fastest way to livestock improvement and created the method of developing bloodlines that is still in use today. Bakewell bred what came to be known as the Leicester Longwool, a sheep with a barrel-shaped body, a thick coat, and high-quality meat. He went on to breed cattle and horses, and his schemes were widely publicized in English journals. Gentleman farmers in America who pored over those publications were intrigued. George Washington was among them, and he is known to have imported his own flock of Leicester Longwools. When Williamsburg launched its rare breed program, the Leicester Longwool had become extinct in this country. Once its greatest attribute, the Leicester's long wool became its downfall. The fleece, greatly valued for hand spinning, did not work well in mechanized textile mills. At the same time, farmers raising sheep for meat began to favor well-muscled breeds that were smaller. They crossed the longwools with the smaller sheep to get a somewhat larger frame and in the process diluted the breed out of existence. Richard Nicoll, Williamsburg's director of coach and livestock, took an interest in the Longwool, and the museum imported its original herd from Tasmania. Along with the Longwools, its program now features American Cream Draft and Canadian horses, American Milking Red Devons, and four types of chickens: Dorking, Dominique, Hamburg, and English Game Fowl.

Fig. 4. Dominique chicken and birds of less illustrious heritage peck in the dirt at Coggeshall Farm. Photograph courtesy of James P. Sacks.

Old Sturbridge Village, for its part, has stuck with its plan to breed animals back to the correct phenotype, rather than engage in a program that would focus on genotype. The strategy was intended to recreate the appearance of early American livestock, as opposed to increasing the number of animals whose genes matched those of rare breeds. A museum publication details nearly forty years of work, noting that cattle belonging to a typical farmer were of no identifiable breed and tended to be "red with middle-sized horns, a mixture of all breeds introduced in the colonial era." The farm staff has crossbred Milking Red Devon, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, Guernsey, Hereford, and Lineback lines to arrive at what was once referred to as "native" cattle. In reading an article called "Barnyard Dynamics" from two decades ago, I got the impression that back breeding occasionally meant revisiting the personalities of these hardy, independent mongrels. "Some cattle are sold because they have undesirable traits," the writer recounted. "Ruby disliked anyone with a long dress, Village milkmaids included, of course. Hannah was the athletic type who jumped fences. She was put into a jumping yoke designed to catch on the fence before the cow leaped. She jumped again, and this time took down the entire fence. She was sold soon after."

Like Plimoth, Sturbridge has recreated the common sheep of its era by crossing the Wiltshire with the Dorset. But Salem Towne, a gentleman farmer of the early nineteenth century, whose lifestyle is depicted at the village, had little interest in such a flock. He was a progressive in his field and he kept a large herd of Merinos, which were first imported to America in 1793. A Spanish breed, the Merino had particularly fine fleece that was in great demand in the emerging New England textile industry. Because the modern type is larger and has a much heavier coat, the farm staff looked for a primitive counterpart with bare legs and dark, coarse wool; a feral breed native to Florida provided many of the unimproved Merino's traits and was brought north.

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