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Extinction threat for rare livestock after mass culls; In the fourth of her foot and mouth series, Environment Reporter Sarah Probert looks at the battle to save some of the rare farm animals.

Byline: Sarah Probert

Rare British farm animals - some more scarce than the giant panda - could become extinct because of the devastating effects of the foot-and-mouth crisis, a Warwickshire-based charity warned today.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which found itself battling to save many of Britain's native livestock breeds from slaughter at the height of the outbreak, said the epidemic had put many breeds under threat.

A quarter of some of the country's rare animals were culled during the crisis, which weakened the gene pool, and further movement restrictions could have a huge impact on future breeding, the trust said.

The full impact of the disease, 12 months on from the start of the crisis, is only just beginning to emerge, as many rare breed keepers decide to give up their stock following the cancellation of shows, movement restrictions and the fear that officials were able to slaughter herds without question during the epidemic.

Movement regulations during and after the crisis had also prevented the buying and selling of stock for breeding purposes, creating fears that many herds might be too old to reproduce.

Richard Lutwyche, of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, which is based at the National Agricultural Centre in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, said the preservation of rare breeds was vitally important.

'It is absolutely essential. Every one is unique in terms of genetic make up, you just can't reproduce them, once they are gone they are totally extinct, like the dodo,' he said.

Between 1900 and 1973, more than 20 breeds of British farm animals became extinct.

The RBST is the only charity in Britain dedicated to the conservation of Britain's native livestock heritage and since it was set up in 1973 no breed of British farm animal has become extinct. It was just one of many organisations which brought the NAC at Stoneleigh to the forefront of the foot and mouth crisis, fighting to help and protect farmers and their livestock.

At the height of the epidemic, the trust fought to collect embryos and semen from threatened livestock and lobbied the Government to spare herds from slaughter.

'Thankfully we didn't lose any at all completely. The disease came very close to the Chillingham cattle in Northumberland, which are fairly unique and in an enclosed area.

'We also came close to the only herd of Vaynol cattle in Leeds but thankfully they weren't effected by the slaughter.

'But we did lost 25 per cent of some breeds which were caught up in the contiguous cull.

'We managed to negotiate with Government for exemptions for rare breeds for contiguous culling but it wasn't until some way through that we managed to get this implemented,' Mr Lutwyche said.

But the after-effects of the crisis has left the future of many breeds in doubt. 'A lot haven't been buying their stock and there is a danger we feel that next year there will be a lot of barren stock that are incapable of breeding.

'If we start losing 25 to 30 per cent of population you are losing the biodiversity of population and narrowing the gene pool. 'A lot of people who kept rare breeds are small scale farmers and I think the very fact that MAFF, now DEFRA, could actually come on to premises with a piece of paper authorising them to shoot or slaughter all stock without any recourse to appeal really frightens people and some have got out of keeping livestock as a result and that has a knock-on effect.

'I am aware that people are getting out of keeping rare breeds and more and more people are going to say 'I don't keep them because there are no shows' and others have said that because they don't like what happened, they are not going to keep livestock,' he added.

The charity is playing a huge part in trying to keep rare breeds alive by lobbying Government, encouraging its members to continue rearing livestock and implementing a traditional breeds meat marketing scheme. Its most ambitious project is the creation of a pounds 2.5 million gene bank, which would be used to safeguard against any future farming disasters such as e-coli, salmonella, and swine fever.

It has currently raised pounds 350,000 for the bank. But the importance of keeping rare breeds alive is perhaps the most crucial part of the trust's work.

Mr Lutwyche said: 'We are trying to make sure it is viable to keep rare breeds and to create a market place for them.

'It is one thing to save the last five in the universe but it is much better to maintain a viable population that we can keep breeding from.'

To make a donation to the trust's gene bank appeal ring 02476 696551.

Tomorrow - what does the future hold for farming in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis?

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Shorthorn cattle being fed at Sandwell Park Farm; Picture, SIMON HADLEY
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 21, 2002
Words:816
Previous Article:NAC besieged with calls for help as stress of crisis tightened.
Next Article:Farmers 'positive' about their future.


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