The protection and promotion of the UK’s native rare breeds is something that’s in Adam Henson’s blood. His father, Joe, established the Rare Breeds Trust in 1973,and they have been a core attraction at their Cotswold Farm Park, and a part of the Henson family story ever since. In A Breed Apart, he takes readers on a very personal journey around the nation, discovering the animals that have shaped our lives and our land throughout the centuries. Today on the site, we have an exclusive extract from the book, which is out now in paperback and ebook.
There are 116 officially recognised rare and native farm breeds in the UK today, and that’s before you count the numerous varieties of chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese which are listed. The number’s even higher if you go back in time and add the breeds which were once popular but were allowed to die out over the last couple of centuries.
So where did these wonderful, varied breeds come from and why do they differ so much? All our domestic animals are descended from a small number of wild ancestors. Thanks to the insight of Charles Darwin we now understand that wild populations are moulded over time by natural selection. He observed that all plants and animals produce more offspring than survive in each generation and that, on balance, the offspring which survive to be parents themselves are those which best ‘fit’ their environment. That is, how well adapted they are to their surroundings. Hence the term ‘survival of the fittest’. Darwin didn’t know how traits were carried from parent to offspring because genes hadn’t yet been discovered, but he understood that they were passed down the generations.
The wild ancestors of modern farm animals first came into close contact with humans when they raided their crops. This provided the opportunity for those early farmers to corral and capture small groups.
Humans could provide winter feed, summer water supplies or protection from wild predators, so they lifted the natural selection pressures normally acting on the wild population and therefore more of the offspring survived. This allowed the humans to impose their own selection pressures. Those individuals which tolerated captivity would have thrived and had more offspring than those with a wilder temperament. So, humans created docile, manageable populations which became increasingly dependent upon humans, because they’d become less well adapted to a wild environment.
The farmers could then begin to favour those animals with traits they valued, keeping those to be the parents of the next generation while eating the ones which were less desirable. The result over generations were animals which grow more quickly, thrive on a particular diet or management system, or livestock which produce more milk than is needed by their own calves, kids or lambs.
Domestication was a first step carried out by our ancestors thousands of years ago, but the principle of animal breeding by replacing ‘natural’ selection in order to develop breeds and strains to ‘fit’ our manmade environments, remains exactly the same.
We think of mainland Britain as a secure, welldefended, democratic island today but that’s really only been the case for the last thousand years or thereabouts. The victory of a French Duke, William of Normandy, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 was just the last in a long wave of visits, settlements, raids and invasions. Early Neolithic farmers, Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Romans and others all came here, and every time new peoples landed they brought their culture, customs, language and very often their animals with them.