4 April 2001
Dolly scientists rare breed warning
By FWi staff
A SCIENTIST from the institute that cloned Dolly the Sheep has warned that genes from rare sheep breeds threatened by foot-and-mouth must be preserved
Dr John Woolliams, who works at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh, said rare breeds were underestimated and needed to safeguard the future of farming.
To lose them would be to lose some valuable traits in future generations, some of which are not even evident at the moment, he said.
For some of these breeds we do not know what their qualities are.
Dr Woolliams has published research on preserving small animal populations at risk on behalf of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But a government task-force set up to address the threat to small livestock populations of its extended cull policy has not yet contacted Dr Woolliams.
It was wrong to compare rare livestock breeds adapted to native environment with more intensive and widely distribute breeds, said Dr Woolliams.
Breeds such as Herdwick sheep on the Lakeland fells of Cumbria are so well adapted to their environment they are hugely important to local farmers.
Dr Woolliams research has indicated that an isolated population of just 24 sheep could be enough to re-establish endangered breeds after foot-and-mouth.
Less than that and it would be hard to ensure sufficient genetic diversity.
A minimum requirement is to try and get 12 male and 12 female sheep to re-establish the population, said Dr Woolliams.
The animals could be drawn from the gene bank and surviving animals. They could not be too closely related and breeding would have to be carefully managed.
Ensuring that gene banks are sufficiently stocked with semen and embryos is crucial to the long-term survival of small populations.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust says many other breeds are in danger.
Its experts have asked MAFF to isolate rare pedigree animals in infected areas and monitor them regularly rather than cull them.
Trust spokesman Richard Lutwyche said: We lost 10% of Gloucester Old Spot pigs in the last week – and the extended slaughter has only just begun.