Many people have heard of heirloom seeds, vegetables and fruits, but did you know there are heirloom breeds of livestock and poultry. Often referred to as “heritage,” these animals once roamed America’s pastoral landscape, but today they face the threat of extinction. Modern agriculture’s focus on increased yield and production has led to the disappearance of many traditional breeds that possess valuable traits and genetics. These breeds are a window into the past and an insurance policy for our future.
Lessons from the Past
In the mid-1800’s, the Irish potato famine killed more than a million people in Ireland and caused another million to flee the country. The Irish planted a specific variety of potato known as the “lumper.” The potato crop lacked genetic diversity, so when the blight hit this monoculture, devastation was imminent.
Today, our agricultural food system reflects this same lack of genetic diversity. A recent study of industrial chicken strains showed that 50% of ancestral genetics have been lost. In the US, 99% of all turkeys raised are a single breed: the Broad Breasted White. This breed has been so heavily selected for its large breast that it can no longer mate naturally. Without artificial insemination, this variety would go extinct in one generation. The genetic pool is getting shallower and shallower, making our risks higher and higher. Traditional or heritage breeds have valuable genetics that expand biodiversity and help secure our food systems. Not to mention, they are often quite tasty!
How can you help?
More than 20% of the 6,500 breeds of domesticated animals face extinction. It’s not just wild animals and exotic species that need our help. In 2010, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy listed 180 breeds of domestic animals on its Conservation Priority List, and the organization listed more than 30 poultry breeds as a “critical” conservation priority.
You can help preserve these breeds for future generations in many ways:
- Eat them to save them: It may seem counterintuitive, but eating these breeds helps to put them back onto the American dinner table, in turn developing a market for the farmers who raise these breeds. The greater the demand for these breeds, the greater the number of them farmers will raise.
- Support your local farmer: Many people have a family dentist, doctor and mechanic, but how many have a family famer? Many heritage breeds are raised on small, local farms. Learn what breeders are in your area and buy from them. Visit www.albc-usa.org to learn more.
- Share the message: Most people don’t know domesticated animals face the danger of extinction. Share your knowledge about heritage breeds, biodiversity and the need to save these breeds!
- Give them a job: The unemployment crisis has hit heritage breeds hard. Many traditional breeds have lost favor, and have lost their traditional roles on farms and homesteads. These breeds need to have a job, such as geese for weeding, chickens for pest control, or cattle for brush management. Learn about alternative uses for these breeds and help to give them their jobs back!
- Raise endangered breeds: If you are interested in chickens or other breeds, consider raising a heritage breed. Heritage breeds retain essential attributes for survival and self-sufficiency – fertility, foraging ability, longevity, maternal instincts, ability to mate naturally, and natural resistance to parasites and disease. Many of the heritage chicken breeds would make great backyard birds. Visit www.heritagechicken.org and visit the “Pick-A-Chick” section to find a bird right for you.
Traditional Breeds, Fun Facts
Heritage breeds possess valuable genetics, but they also embody the history, culture and traditions of a bygone era. Take some time to learn about the various heritage breeds and their unique stories.
Buckeye chicken: More than 20 years before women earned the right to vote in the United States, Mrs. Nettie Metcalf of Warren, Ohio, was paving her own path. In 1896, Metcalf created the Buckeye chicken breed, the only American chicken developed entirely by a woman. Buckeyes also have a personality all their own. They are a very active fowl noted for being especially vigilant in the pursuit of mice. (Some breeders compare them to cats in this regard.). They are a quality meat bird and good layers.
Cotton Patch geese: Once commonplace on farms in the southeastern United States, Cotton Patch geese were used to weed cotton and corn fields up until the 1950s. Cotton Patch geese are remembered in the rural South for helping many farm families survive the Great Depression by providing a regular source of meat, eggs and grease. The breed is thought to have been derived from European stock brought to the states during the Colonial period. Because of their smaller size, the breed has the ability to adjust to hot weather better than most of the heavier breeds of geese.
Runner or Indian Runner duck: Runners have quite a history. Ancient Javan temple carvings indicate that Runner-type ducks existed in the Indochinese peninsula more than 2,000 years ago. People in this part of the world have been herding ducks for hundreds of years. Herders drove flocks of ducks out to rice paddies and fields during the day to eat scattered grain, weed, seeds, snails, insects, larvae, small reptiles and more. (The trained ducks kept in sight of the herder’s long bamboo pole and its attached strips of cloth.) The Runner duck makes a great layer and good strains will lay well in excess of 200 white, hen-sized eggs per year. The Runner duck is a very active forager and has an active disposition.
Narragansett turkey: The Narragansett turkey is named for Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, where the variety developed. It descends from a cross between native Eastern Wild turkeys and the domestic turkeys (probably Norfolk Blacks) brought to Colonial America by English and European colonists beginning in the 1600’s. Improved and standardized for production qualities, the Narragansett became the foundation of the turkey industry in New England. Though it was valued across the country, it was especially important in Rhode Island and Connecticut. Narragansett turkeys have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production and excellent meat qualities.
Sources: FAO: The State of Food and Agriculture (2009), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, www.Sustainabletable.org.