Cross-breed­ing de­bate

Is it a good thing?

Country Smallholding - - Welcome -

Is cross-breed­ing your live­stock ac­cept­able? So far in this se­ries on breed­ing we have fo­cused on fairly main­stream themes: what suc­cess­ful breed­ing ac­tu­ally means; the vet per­spec­tive; record keep­ing; rare breeds and most re­cently, look­ing af­ter preg­nant stock to­gether with a brief ‘how to’ lamb­ing and kid­ding guide. For the next few ar­ti­cles we are go­ing to delve a bit deeper, begin­ning with the whole idea of cross-breed­ing, that of tak­ing one breed and de­lib­er­ately cross­ing it with another.

When we wrote about rare breeds, we en­thused, quite rightly, about the whole no­tion of pre­serv­ing rare breeds in or­der to safe­guard both ge­netic di­ver­sity and our her­itage. This ap­plies to all pedi­gree/pure stock, not just rare breeds and, as we noted, there are count­less breed so­ci­eties up and down the coun­try ded­i­cated to their one breed and do­ing all they can to con­tinue and im­prove its num­bers.

But what of cross-breed­ing? Is there a place for it? Is it wrong? Do you need to know what you are do­ing (sci­en­tif­i­cally) or is it okay to cross-breed sim­ply be­cause you ‘like’ both breeds? And then there are those an­i­mals that come to us without pa­per­work and/or are NOT pure bred, should they be bred from at all? And what of the per­son or per­sons who de­lib­er­ately set about to cre­ate a brand new breed? Is that re­ally okay? And why do it?

Be­spoke breed­ing

I have my own lit­tle be­spoke cross-breed­ing pro­gramme. I have a gor­geous Pekin Ban­tam called Quee­nie. She is very pretty, a fab­u­lous broody and a ‘bit of a char­ac­ter’! Be­cause of these char­ac­ter­is­tics, ev­ery year I breed ei­ther di­rect from her or from her off­spring and al­ways us­ing a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent cock­erels. I note with in­ter­est which char­ac­ter­is­tics get passed on and try to con­tinue with the de­sir­able ones and, through us­ing dif­fer­ent males each year, I am also learn­ing about the ge­net­ics of egg colour. All in all, my lit­tle breed­ing pro­gramme brings me a huge amount of joy with ab­so­lute zero pres­sure: no need to make money or fol­low set cri­te­ria as to which off­spring I then breed from. We eat any cock­erels and spare hens and just keep the hens we want, oc­ca­sion­ally sell­ing some to any­one who wants ‘pretty’ and medium-sized eggs. I ex­pect I am not alone in hav­ing a bit of fun with my poul­try like this and hope­fully no one would think of telling me what I am do­ing is wrong.

Or would they?

Away from the world of rare and pedi­gree stock, cross-breed­ing takes place ALL the time. And there are a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons why, from the in­cred­i­bly mun­dane and po­ten­tially ques­tion­able de­sire to sim­ply breed ‘be­cause I want to’ and ‘I

don’t care what male I get’; to farm­ers and small­hold­ers who breed for big­ger car­cass sizes or spe­cific colours or to pro­duce faster grow­ing an­i­mals or ones with softer, longer fleeces etc etc. Many of these peo­ple have in­cred­i­ble ge­netic knowl­edge and are very aware of what they are do­ing. They keep scrupu­lous records and en­sure that any an­i­mal they breed has a set destiny.

And yet, can they too be crit­i­cised?

Against cross-breed­ing

The log­i­cal ar­gu­ment against cross­breed­ing is that if you are look­ing for par­tic­u­lar traits in an an­i­mal, then you should find a pure breed that sat­is­fies them be­cause, surely, there are enough pure breeds around. Not many of us can claim to know them all, hence hope­fully, af­ter re­search, be­ing able to find one that suits. Cross-breed­ing also po­ten­tially weak­ens the gene pool for each spe­cific breed be­cause as soon as you take a ‘pure bred’ an­i­mal and use it to pro­duce cross­breeds, those off­spring can­not (most of the time) be used in any pro­gramme to breed ‘pure’ again. In ad­di­tion, by us­ing a pure fe­male, you have then po­ten­tially re­duced the num­ber of pure off­spring she can pro­duce. There are many rare breeds that strug­gle to keep their num­bers up and/ or have a very re­duced num­ber of lines, thus mak­ing in-breed­ing hard to avoid! There is also the whole ques­tion of what hap­pens to the off­spring. Do they go for meat, pets, lawn­mow­ers? Should they be bred from? Is cross-breed­ing ba­si­cally just ir­re­spon­si­ble be­cause surely if you want to breed, you should be breed­ing pure to help main­tain and im­prove that species? Doesn’t cross-breed­ing flood the mar­ket with un­wanted an­i­mals? Within any pure-bred breed­ing pro­gramme there will be un­wanted an­i­mals any­way, those that don’t ful­fil their breed stan­dard – these are the an­i­mals that should be for meat, pets, lawn­mow­ers etc surely, NOT cross-breeds that should never have been bred in the first place.

And yet...

And yet, if you trace back many of our rare and pedi­gree live­stock, their ori­gins are to be found in cross-breed­ing. The Castlemilk Moorit sheep saved from ex­tinc­tion, in part, by Joe Hen­son and at the fore­front of es­tab­lish­ing the RBST, was ‘cre­ated’ by Sir John Buchanan Jar­dine in the early 1900s and has Moorit Shet­land, Manx Loagh­tan and wild Mou­flon in its ge­netic makeup. Whilst not want­ing to use this as an ar­gu­ment for ad­vo­cat­ing cross-breed­ing at any cost, this par­tic­u­lar sheep was bred to ‘adorn’ the park­land of Sir John and to pro­vide a fine, kemp-free wool. And this per­haps is what lies at the crux of the whole de­bate: ‘pur­pose’ – what is the pur­pose of any cross-breed­ing pro­gramme?

Breed­ing for a pur­pose

John Caunter from Devon is an ex­pe­ri­enced live­stock keeper. Many years ago he couldn’t get hold of a Suf­folk ram to use with his Rom­ney ewes (his usual choice) and so he bor­rowed a Hamp­shire ram that year in­stead. In his own words:

“These lambs fin­ished so much quicker. With the lambs not be­ing around all sum­mer this meant I could have a higher stock­ing rate and sell lambs ear­lier when prices were higher. Since then I have often had dif­fer­ent breeds that have al­ways been put to the Hamp­shire. One of the most no­table were four Manx ewes that pro­duced slightly smaller butcher’s lambs but good grades. I was so im­pressed with Hamp­shires that I bought some pedi­gree ewes. They are fan­tas­tic for small acreages as they will lamb early so lamb­ing can be done if they are housed be­cause of graz­ing short­age. They fin­ish quickly, all lambs fin­ished off grass, none sold as stores and they are quiet.” John’s ‘pur­pose’ with his pro­gramme was to pro­duce good qual­ity meat car­casses BUT this was done along­side con­sid­er­a­tions for an­i­mal wel­fare (e.g. match­ing sim­i­lar sized sheep) and de­sired man­age­ment con­sid­er­a­tions (e.g. early lamb­ing). John’s ex­pe­ri­ence is typ­i­cal of count­less small­hold­ing breed­ers up and down the coun­try.

On a very ba­sic level, live­stock is bred to pro­duce food and to earn our liv­ings and this is true of the small­est small­holder through to the largest farmer. There are count­less ex­am­ples of cross-breed­ing be­ing gain­fully em­ployed to pro­duce ‘big­ger and bet­ter’ car­casses: this could mean any­thing from an­i­mals ‘fin­ish­ing’ ear­lier to hav­ing bet­ter kill-out per­cent­ages. The way it often

If you trace back many of our rare and pedi­gree live­stock, their ori­gins are to be found in cross-breed­ing

works is that the male is cho­sen for his po­ten­tial meat qual­i­ties and the fe­male for her moth­er­ing qual­i­ties, ease of birthing, good milk etc (in the case of mam­mals).

But this high­lights a very im­por­tant point. To run any suc­cess­ful cross-breed­ing pro­gramme you have to have the orig­i­nal pure bred an­i­mals in the first place. So is, there­fore, cross-breed­ing ac­tu­ally ‘help­ing’ to keep the pure breeds go­ing and in par­tic­u­lar the rare breeds? As my old butcher back in Corn­wall was very fond of say­ing to me: “Them’s rare breeds for t’rea­son Jack!” The truth of the mat­ter is that the rea­son so many of our rare breeds are rare is be­cause they be­came fi­nan­cially un­vi­able and so peo­ple turned to the ‘com­mer­cial’ breeds and in­evitable cross-breed­ing in or­der to try to pro­duce that ‘per­fect’ car­cass or fleece etc.

Pure but not pedi­gree?

The other huge difficulty within this de­bate con­cerns that very con­fus­ing but much used phrase, ‘pure but not pedi­gree’. With all pure breeds, the ul­ti­mate aim is to get them registered as pedi­gree stock so they can then be­come breed­ing an­i­mals and con­tinue/in­crease the breed pop­u­la­tion. Those that don’t ‘make the grade’ ought to ei­ther end up in the food chain or get sold as non-breed­ing an­i­mals. There is a school of thought that sug­gests that these ‘slightly im­per­fect’ an­i­mals can be used for cross-breed­ing be­cause af­ter all, they are still ‘pure’. So, is THIS okay? Well, the im­me­di­ate counter-ar­gu­ment is that ac­tu­ally they are NOT pure be­cause they have not ful­filled all parts of the breed stan­dard for their breed and if you have cho­sen that breed for your cross-breed­ing pro­gramme be­cause of its spe­cific at­tributes, then by us­ing an an­i­mal that doesn’t have them all, aren’t you then com­pro­mis­ing your own cross­breed­ing pro­gramme? BUT, equally, by us­ing the an­i­mal for cross-breed­ing (al­beit a not-per­fect ver­sion) are you not in fact pro­vid­ing an out­let for the ‘pure’ breed­ers to pass on their un­wanted stock?

Mother (Pekin Ban­tam) on the right, daugh­ter on the left (crossed with a Leg­bar) and grand­chil­dren (crossed with In­dian Game) – a ‘mini’ be­spoke breed­ing pro­gramme

Bel­tex x Badger Face lambs, thanks to the BF moth­er­ing skills and the Bel­tex bulk, these pro­duced great meat car­casses

Pic­ture: Paddy O’Kennedy

Pedi­gree Castlemilk Moorit sheep .

Pic­ture: Lyn Ar­row­smith

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