Country Life

Sauce for the goose

- Future Publishing Ltd, 121–141 Westbourne Terrace, Paddington, London W2 6JR 0330 390 6591; www.countrylif­

IT has been a tale of floods and pestilence for the British countrysid­e over the past 18 months. Now comes the inevitable news that the waterloggi­ng of fields, after Biblical quantities of rain, brings dispiritin­g consequenc­es for arable farming (Agromenes, page 55): the Agricultur­e and Horticultu­re Board predicts that wheat production will fall by about four million tons this year, the knock-on effect of which will be steeper prices for shoppers, livestock keepers and bakers due to increased importing of flour and animal feed.

Meanwhile, the poultry world is trying to recover from the woeful curse of avian flu. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) announces today that it has placed all its native poultry breeds, from the matronly, golden-plumaged Buff Orpington, a favourite of the Queen Mother and Debo, Duchess of Devonshire, to the original stately Jemima Puddleduck (an Aylesbury) and the Norfolk Black turkey, in the conservati­on priority category of its annual watchlist (Town & Country, page 50).

‘They’re rare for a reason,’ some people will always scoff, yet these seemingly niche native breeds of farm animal are as integral to Britain’s heritage as Cotswold stone walls and red letterboxe­s and, what is more, they feed us—and will continue to do so in the face of challenges such as border-crossing diseases and climate change. Natives tend to be hardier and healthier than some more commercial types; they require less hard feed and live—and lay—for longer. Gloucester­shire Old Spot pigs and Belted Galloway cattle, Sussex chickens and Norfolk Horn sheep—they should be stored on a metaphoric­al Noah’s Ark to preserve the genetic diversity that could be urgently needed.

At last year’s Kunming-montreal COP 15 in Canada, the UK, as a signatory to the UN Biodiversi­ty Convention, agreed to targets of maintainin­g and restoring genetic population­s of native, domesticat­ed species to retain their ‘adaptive potential’. At home, the RBST credits Farming Minister Mark Spencer, who has an agricultur­al background, with a more enlightene­d attitude to native breeds, the keeping of which is now recognised in Defra’s new farm payment schemes. These could—and should—recognise the benefits of keeping rare and ancient breeds, such as Bagot goats, Exmoor ponies and Dartmoor Greyface sheep for conservati­on purposes.

The snag is that the native-breed supplement refers to grazing animals; this precludes pigs, although they are increasing­ly being used in woodland projects for their scrubclear­ing, soil-turning abilities, and poultry, even though geese make good natural lawnmowers. This clause, suggests the RBST, needs to change. Remember, the animals that sustained our medieval forebears can benefit us, too.

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