More than two-thirds of the UK’s 130 native breeds are at risk. And while commercially minded producers may think of native breeds as a small-scale niche market, these founding genetics have provided the base for a large percentage of livestock production not only in the UK, but globally.

Because of this, the UK’s farm animal gene pool is of great economic, social and cultural importance, according to SAC‘s Geoff Simm.

Speaking at this week’s British Society of Animal Science conference, Southport, Prof Simm explained that to conserve and manage this resource effectively, an industry and government strategy – The UK National Action Plan on Farm Animal Genetic Resources (FAnGR) – aims to provide a joined-up approach to managing genetic resources.

Supported by a range of industry partners, the plan lists four central areas of action: Why farm animal genetics need protecting what and where genetic resources are how the genetic pool should be both used and conserved and what government can do to help.

And it isn’t just rare breeds that require protection, the report highlights, citing the Holstein Friesian as an example. “One breed has been relied on to produce a high yielding animal fit for purpose, which to some extent we are now paying for in terms of falling fertility.”

Growing interest

As industry increasingly moves away from breeding solely for production characteristics, there has been a growing interest in traditional breeds, not only from a consumer stand point, but equally a management perspective.

The incorporation of easier care, lower input native breeds is a prime example of industry using the gene pool to its advantage.

“A long-term strategy is essential to both build on our heritage and conserve genetics for the future,” he advised. “In terms of economic importance, environmental and habitat management and the overriding international obligation to conserve, the plan also aims to protect from both new and potential risks, such as those posed by 2001’s foot-and-mouth outbreak.”

The plan aims to provide robust guidelines on issues such as nucleus flock/herd sizes to ensure breed survival, methods of establishing geographical concentration of breeds and investigation into the costs and benefits of FAnGR.

On the conservation front, gene banks already play a considerable role, however, their place in preserving farm animal genetics requires careful planning to assess whether they are fit for purpose, believes SAC’s Tim Roughsedge.

The purpose of gene banks falls into two broad categories, catastrophe aversion and support, he explained. “Both roles can be considered risk management, however, by establishing what risk is being managed specific resource banks can better meet targeted objectives.”

The National Scrapie Plan (NSP) aimed to develop scrapie resistance within the UK flock, but doing so threatened to reduce the core genetic base. “Establishing a gene bank to prevent the loss of specific traits has acted as an insurance policy.”