RBST’s new Rare Breeds Watchlist raises concerns for Large White pig and iconic Hackney horse breed

The once prolific Large White pig has been added to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust Watchlist’s ‘highest priority’ category.

By Joanne Knox
Tuesday, 12th April 2022, 9:02 am

The new watchlist has been published today and raises concerns for the Large White after the breed suffered further significant decline in numbers last year.

The breed, known internationally as ‘The Yorkshire Pig’, enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1950s, but its numbers declined dramatically due to a trend for crossing Large Whites with Landrace pigs instead of pedigree breeding.

The Large White has had a significant influence in the commercial pig industry and the development of the hybrid pig.

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Large White

More recently, the breed’s effective population size has fallen from more than 900 in 2000, to just 125 today.

Effective population size indicates the genetic diversity within the breed, by accounting for the total number of animals in a population and the relative numbers of sires and dams.

Today, the RBST is also renewing its warning about the future of the Hackney horse and pony with 2021 seeing the effective population size for the breed fall below 50, this is extremely concerning as an effective population of 50 is set as a threshold for concern by the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization).

The breed, which already had very low numbers, has seen further decline over the past year with just 31 females producing registered progeny from only 12 breeders.

Hackney horse

This compares with more than 300 breeding females registered in 2011.

During the 1800s, Hackney horses were very popular in Britain thanks to their speed, stamina and elegance as a light carriage horse.

Their ownership was highly prestigious, but the breed’s fortunes fell with the advent of the motor car.

Today the Hackney is much admired at show-driving events, known as the ‘ballerina of the showring’.

Norfolk Horn

RBST Chief Executive, Christopher Price, commented: “Today’s RBST watchlist shows that many of our rare native breeds are holding a stable position thanks to the fantastic efforts of RBST members, despite the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic.

“In changing commercial conditions, and as environmental sustainability comes to the fore of agricultural policy, the UK’s native breeds of livestock are increasingly attractive for farming and land management.

“Breeds enjoying an improving situation include the English goat, Lincoln Longwool sheep, Middle White pigs and Vaynol cattle - we now have the chance to harness these welcome improvements into further success for these breeds.”

However, Mr Price said some of the native breeds are in “pretty dire straits right now”.

English goat

He continued: The pig industry has had an awful year and the situation for native pigs is very concerning, with the decline in Large Whites, seven of our 11 native pig breeds are now priority breeds.

“In sheep, there has been a significant decline in births of one of the UK’s oldest sheep breeds the Norfolk Horn, so that trend is cause for real concern too.

“If we lose these breeds, we lose not only an irreplaceable piece of our heritage, but also their unique genetic value and their crucial contributions to a future for farming where food production and the environment go hand in hand.

“For our native equines, very low numbers remain of Eriskay ponies, Suffolk horses, Cleveland Bay horses and Hackney horses.

“There is good news in the stability or improvement for the Eriskay, Suffolk and Cleveland Bay breeds, however, the Hackney’s effective population size continues to decline and we are urging more people to support the breed’s modern uses.”

RBST’s analysis shows that several livestock and equine breeds have seen their outlooks deteriorate in 2021 including:

*Large White Pigs - Large White pigs are moving to the highest Priority level on the Watchlist. Large White pigs, also called ‘The Yorkshire Breed’ used to be hugely popular, exported all over the world and used to develop lots of the commercial breeds: according to the British Pig Association (BPA), virtually any joint in the supermarket today will have some degree of Large White in its genetic make-up. In 1954 the number of licensed boars recorded was 16,751, which represented 76 per cent of the total male pig population. Data from the BPA shows just 66 boars recorded in 2021.

*Hackney horse and pony – these horses and ponies have a proud place in UK heritage and were highly sought after for pulling carriages. They have been on the priority list for some time, and the number of dams has declined from 132 in 2007 to 31 in 2021.

*Norfolk Horn sheep – One of the oldest of the UK’s sheep breeds, the Norfolk Horn played a major part in the history and economy of East Anglia, with its fleeces the basis of the region’s famous worsted industry. The breed declined in popularity and in the 1890s there was just one flock left. In the 1960s there were just a handful left, through great efforts of individual keepers, the Norfolk Horn Breeders Group and RBST, numbers are now healthier but the significant decline this year in numbers of breeding dams and progeny is very worrying.

*Gloucester cattle – Gloucester cattle remain a major concern with a decline in the number of dams exacerbating concerns about lack of genetic diversity and geographic distribution.

No breeds have improved enough to move off the watchlist this year, however, there is positive news for the following species and breeds:

*Native breed goats - with goats becoming increasingly popular to keep, the UK’s four native breeds of goat (English, Old English, Bagot and Guernsey) have all had a year of stability or growth. The English goat and the Old English goat breeds remain on the priority list so the growth in numbers and genetic diversity is particularly welcome.

*Lincoln Longwool sheep – the breed remains in the priority category, but there has been a welcome increase in effective population size and number of breeders. For more on the RBST’s Love a Longwool campaign to promote the UK’s nine native longwool breeds, click here.

*Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies – these iconic West Country breeds have seen an important increase in the number of dams, which is crucial to managing inbreeding in breeds with low numbers.

*Vaynol and Albion cattle – both remain priority breeds, but their numbers saw significant improvements in effective population size in 2021.

RBST is the national charity working across the UK to save and safeguard the future of rare and native livestock and equine breeds.

The RBST watchlist is the annual situation report for these breeds, reflecting robust measures of the genetic diversity within each breed as well as the numbers of breeding females registered.

The full list can be found at www.rbst.org.ukVisit www.rbst.org.uk to find out more about keeping rare breeds and to donate to the charity’s conservation programmes.