Rare Breeds in Need

These rare breeds need engaged stewards to survive.

| March/April 2012

Heritage breeds are the animals our great-grandparents and their ancestors raised on small farms. These rare breeds were developed to possess traits such as disease resistance, adaptability, self-sufficiency, fertility, longevity, intrinsic mothering abilities, and more. Farmers who raised these breeds focused on creating a “well-rounded” animal versus a specialized one designed to fill one aspect of production. What resulted were breeds ideally suited for small farms and backyard homesteads.

Today, many historic breeds are disappearing from the American agricultural landscape. Industrialization has led many farmers to rely on modern lines developed for maximum production. Because of this trend, more than 180 breeds of livestock and poultry are currently threatened with extinction. Even more startling is the fact that more than 61 rare breeds are listed as critically endangered – meaning their numbers raise the most concern and their ultimate fate will likely be determined by the actions of the current generation.

Santa Cruz sheep

Status: Critical 

Santa Cruz sheep are a feral breed named for the California Channel Islands haven that they once inhabited. Their exact history is uncertain, but they have been documented on the island since the late 1800s. Escaped sheep from island ranches may have, over time, formed the Santa Cruz breed. These “runaway sheep” would have faced geographic isolation, a Mediterranean-like climate, a harsh terrain, and minimal forage; giving rise to the hardy, self-sufficient Santa Cruz breed of today. In 1978, the Nature Conservancy acquired Santa Cruz Island, and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy helped move some of the sheep into the hands of mainland breeders. Today, fewer than 200 registered Santa Cruz sheep exist in the United States.

The Santa Cruz sheep are relatively small and come in a mix of colors, including white (predominant), black, brown and spotted. The sheep have little wool on their faces, bellies and legs, and may have short, wool-less tails. The fleece is fine to medium and is said to be very soft. The Santa Cruz breed embodies valuable genetics that may be needed in the future. It can serve as a meat and fiber source for the small family farm, but serious conservation breeders also are needed to ensure the breed’s future.

American Buff goose

Status: Critical 

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