Is it a good thing?
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?
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?
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, 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
Pedigree Castlemilk Moorit sheep .