Breeding the endangered farm animal

Ask most Americans to name a few endangered animals, and they may say the African elephant, the giant panda, or maybe the great blue whale.

But ask these same people which farm animals are on the brink of extinction and the standard reaction will be looks of disbelief.

Yet, in today's market-driven world of fat-free foods and synthetic fibers, certain animals are dwindling in number because of their high fat content, slow growth, and expensive wool. These animals, which were once commonplace on the 19th-century family farm, have typically been replaced by higher-producing, faster-growing breeds.

In order to fight this increasing trend of concentrated monobreeding and the loss of less-popular farm animals, Kelmscott Farm here has made a priority of breeding only endangered breeds of farm animals and finding markets for them. Besides being a working farm, Kelmscott is also dedicated to educating the public about its mission through various programs and sponsored events.

Under the direction of Robyn Metcalf, the farm, which began in 1994, is thought to be one of a kind. Now animals such as the large, floppy-eared Gloucestershire pig, which some experts say formerly had a population of four in the US, currently has between 60 and 70 registered adults nationwide, due in large part to Kelmscott's initiative.

Other animals, such as Cotswold sheep, which once roamed the fields of Britain and provided wool for the Roman army, are listed as rare on the endangered breeds list but are now finding a place in the wool and meat industry with the help of the farm.

"Most people have a sense of breeding varieties of wildlife but not domesticated animals," says Ms. Metcalf. Earlier this decade, while researching the possibility of raising six sheep, she stumbled on The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the preservation of genetic resources in domestic livestock. Metcalf decided she would choose the endangered Cotswold sheep to raise rather than a more common variety. Soon, her personal endeavor turned into a crusade to develop a foundation devoted to breeding farm animals listed as rare, critical, or critically rare on the endangered breeds list.

Now, nine breeds of animals besides Metcalf's original Cotswold sheep reside at the 150-acre farm, making its total population around 200.

For scientists, Metcalf explains, the issue is the preservation of genetic resources. To her, a loss of these breeds of animals means the demise of certain qualities the animals possess.

Despite her commitment to the farm's purpose, Metcalf says it's unrealistic to stop the commercial farming of select breeds of fast-growing animals.

Rather, she sees Kelmscott as a potential resource for commercial farmers.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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