Town & Country
Native breeds return to market
CHAMPIONS of Britain’s native farm animals— from the multi-horned Manx Loaghton to the whiterumped Gloucester cow—are making an impassioned plea to owners and farmers to take more responsibility for their future by registering progeny with the relevant breed society. Proper maintenance of pedigrees will preserve the animals’ genetic integrity and distinctiveness and resilience to disease as well as boosting demand for their meats.
Speaking at a Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) conference last week, geneticist Libby Henson pointed out that an animal can only be conserved if there is a market for it. ‘We have a fantastic wealth of breeds that are not just different in coat colour or number of horns, but in their genetic make-up,’ explained Miss Henson, whose late father, Joe, was a founder member of the RBST.
‘And there are real differences in taste—we had a family tradition of “guess the breed” at Sunday lunch—but, in order to save this fabulous diversity, we need to eat them. Thanks to people banging the drum, rare-breed produce is now in the public domain and producers can get a premium price for it, but it must have integrity. The public is on our side, but it’s essential that we keep our part of the bargain and give them what they think they’re buying.’ Miss Henson adds that registering is important for breed development: ‘This could be a bit controversial, but breeds don’t have to be preserved in aspic. We don’t want to be producing exactly the same animals in 30 years’ time.’
Britain has more pig breeds than any other western nation, for which Marcus Bates from the British Pig Association credits the work of ‘stubborn old men’ in the 1950s, but agrees that their survival ‘depends on a place in the commercial market and not on sentiment’. And, according to Andrew Sharp, a butcher and member of Mutton Renaissance: ‘Sheep are like wine— they all have different flavours—but the consumer won’t have a clue about registration or pedigree; we have to get that right ourselves.’
Dan Saladino, producer of Radio 4’s The Food Programme, suggests that more could be done to educate customers: ‘If you eat Herdwick lamb, you’re helping keep the [Cumbrian] landscape on which it lives, but few people have any concept that the landscape is there because of farming and that, when they’re buying the produce from it, they’re helping keep a local pub or school open.’
Both farmers and restaurant owners at the conference report an increase in interest in rare-breed meats and Wirral-based specialist butcher Callum Edge thinks today’s shoppers are more knowledgeable about food: ‘I’m positive that our stocking native breeds is what has made us a destination shop. I don’t want to be part of the wider market—we have to disassociate ourselves from other breeds.’
However, both David Wilson, farm manager of the RBST patron The Prince of Wales, and Phil Stocker from the National Sheep Association suggest that ‘hybrid vigour’ and not being too prescriptive can be a good thing. ‘We’ve got such a wide range of sheep breeds and it would be a shame not to recognise the value of cross-breeding for different markets,’ explains Mr Stocker. ‘Uplands sheep tend to be hardy and independent, with strong maternal instincts, but they’re not prolific breeders, nor are they particularly milky or large, but, if they’re crossed with, say, Border Leicesters, you can gain real environmental and commercial benefits when you have them on lowland farms.’
The RBST (www.rbst.org.uk) is working with the Slow Food Movement’s Ark of Taste, which aims to protect endangered local foods worldwide, to provide a UK list that includes such products as red grouse, authentic Aylesbury duck and Cromer crab (www.fondazionslowfood.com).
The Search for Gold, Cadair Idris, Wales, by Ayrshire-born landscape artist Ramsay Gibb, who is exhibiting for the first time in an evocative display of British landscape paintings at the Catto Gallery in Hampstead, London NW3 ( until August 2). Artists include Graham Arnold, Haydn Cottam, Colin Fraser, Ian Hargreaves and Annie Ovenden ( 020–7435 6660; www.cattogallery.co.uk)
These happy breeds: the public is more educated about the importance of native breeds such as Gloucester Old Spot pigs, Manx Loaghtan sheep and Gloucester cattle