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ANIMAL BREEDS NEED TO BE PRESERVED TOO

Only three examples of the Kerry bog pony were known to exist when John Mulvihill, who keeps a pub outside Killarney, began to take an interest in them in 1987. By 1995, when they were recognised as a distinct breed by the Irish Horse Board, twenty-two ponies had been discovered.

In a rational world, cattle with the ability to produce rich milk from rough hill grazing on which other breeds would starve would be recognised as a valuable resource and prized. In the world as it is, a breed with that ability, the Kerry, almost died out and was only saved at the last minute. Its low point was in 1982 when there were only 110 cows and 96 heifers in Britain and Ireland. The number of these tiny black animals - they are no more than 38 inches high at the shoulder - have doubled since then but some of their genetic diversity has been lost. "You don't find the range of genetic material that you would have found previously" says Dr. Dan Bradley of the Department of Genetics, Trinity College, Dublin, who has studied them. "They are much more uniform than they would have been had their numbers not dropped so low." However, the Kerry's value is now appreciated and to minimise in-breeding and prevent more characteristics being lost, the Department of Agriculture in Dublin uses a computer programme to advise owners on the bulls they should use to inseminate each cow.

The Kerry was almost lost despite having a breed society to record pedigrees and promote it, a show record going back to the 1840s and the proven ability to convert its feed into milk more efficiently than almost any other type of cattle. In tests as long ago as 1841, a Galloway cow consumed 21.75lbs of hay a day from which it produced 6.25 quarts of milk which was churned into 0.65lbs of butter. The Kerry, however, ate 16.875lbs of hay and gave 7.5 quarts of much richer milk which turned into almost a pound of butter 29.

The Kerry's ability to produce rich milk from heather-covered hillsides gave it the title of the poor man's cow. However, the present secretary of the breed society, Raymonde Hilliard, who milks fifty Kerry cows grazed on frequently-flooded roughish land outside Killarney, says that yields will increase to justify the use of good land if it is available. The bull calfs have are good for beef, too, which is unusual in a milk breed. "They just take a bit longer to reach weight" she says. A slaughter weight of about 560lbs at three years - tiny by Charolais standards - is regarded as fair. She sells in-calf heifers for about 650 but "people want them for peanuts"

Many other traditional animal breeds with potentially-valuable characteristics for a sustainable, low-input system of agriculture are either still in difficulties or owe their survival to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in Britain. In particular, sustainable systems of agriculture and food distribution are going to mean an increased role for the horse. There were million heavy horses were in use in Britain in 1920, 775,000 on farms and the remainder in transport and distribution 30. In 1990, however, according to a Ministry of Agriculture census 31, there were only 4,500 on farms and smallholdings, slightly up on the 1979 figure of 4,375. "I would say only about 10% of them are in use" says John Ward of the Shire Horse Society. "Most are kept for breeding purposes. There are about 3,500 mares and because the market for pure-bred foals as been very depressed of late, there's been a lot of cross-breeding to produce jumpers and riding horses that can carry a little weight. A good mare will sell for around 2,000 and a working gelding for 1,500. You get a lot of horse for very little money."

As there are about 3,500 Shire horses the breed is safe but the Suffolk Punch, which is more useful than the Shire for slow work on heavy land and able to tolerate harsher conditions, is down to 350 and Clydesdale numbers are also low. "The Suffolk Punch is classed as an endangered species. There are very few bloodlines available but if you talk to the breeders, they'll say they are not seeing any problems but are aware of the dangers" Ward says. With horses, a breed is considered endangered if there are less than 333 breeding females and critical if there are less than two hundred.

It seems unlikely that the reduced number of heavy horses will prevent communities reducing their reliance on the products of the motor industry as the number of animals could be doubled every four years if the demand was there. "You can expect a mare to give birth every year but it would be three years before you could get any real work from the foal" Ward says.

2002 update by Caroline Whyte

As of early 2003, there were approximately 3000 Shire horses in the UK according to the Shire Horse Society. Suffolk Punch numbers have gone down to 200, and there is information about the campaign to save the breed at the Suffolk Punch Pages website. Clydesdales are more numerous, at about 1000, and are also popular in the US and elsewhere in the world.

Shire Horse Society, East of England Showground, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire PE2 6XE, UK, tel +44 (0)1733 234451, fax +44 (0)1733 370038, e-mail shire.horse@eastofengland.org.uk.

Rare Breeds Survival Trust, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LG, UK, tel +44 (0)24 7669 6551, fax +44 (0)24 7669 6706. e-mail enquiries@rbst.org.uk. Membership costs 20 in the UK, 30 elsewhere, and includes copies of a quarterly magazine, The Ark.

Genetic Heritage Ireland (Irish Genetic Resources Conservation Trust), c/o Trinity College Botanic Gardens, Palmerston Park, Dartry, Dublin 6, Ireland, is primarily for scientists. Susbscriptions are EU 20. However, it has close links with the Irish Rare Breeds Society, Dromard, Co. Sligo, tel +353 71 66002, which is much more for practical breeders. The Society's directory of Irish rare breeds covers cattle, sheep, pigs and horses.

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