The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in preserving the historical genetic diversity of animals traditionally associated with pre-industrial agriculture. Now, more than ever, animals are being bred for a single purpose: industrial production. Homesteaders, ecologically minded consumers, sustainability advocates, and diversified farms are looking to heritage breeds to rebuild a more diverse food system.
But what are heritage breeds? What’s the big deal about heritage breeds? Which Meyer breeds are heritage breeds? How do you know what breeds of poultry are the most critically endangered? We will discuss the answers to these questions, as well as provide a brief overview of an organization actively involved in the preservation and categorization of heritage livestock breeds.
First, what does it mean for a breed to be “heritage”? As it turns out, the term is less a scientific one than it is a bit of an art. Generally, heritage is taken to mean the breed was in existence before the age of farm industrialization, or prior to the 1920’s in the United States. They are the breeds of animals that once made up small, highly diversified farms.
The advantages of a heritage breed are substantial for a small farm or homestead. Heritage breeds maintain historically important attributes like maternal instincts, the ability to reproduce naturally, fertility, the ability to thrive on forage, and, sometimes, resistance to particular diseases and parasites. Although these breeds have many benefits, many of their admirable traits also mean that they are less productive, do not tolerate confinement as well, and are not as healthy on a corn and soy based diet as the breeds specifically developed for use in the industrial food system.
Many heritage breeds are multi purpose. In poultry, this means that the females are often kept as productive layers, while all but the most genetically desirable breeding males were traditionally processed for meat. These older breeds boast a more robust flavor than the ubiquitous, quick growing meat breeds available today, and may be highly sought after in specialty markets including high end or farm to table restaurants, some ethnic markets, and as a more sustainable alternative for sustainability minded direct from farm consumers.
The Livestock Conservancy is an organization with the stated mission “To protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.” As part of this mission, the Livestock Conservancy maintains a list of which livestock breeds are most endangered. Meyer Hatchery offers many of those breeds:
Chickens: Campine, Sultan, Faverolles, Lakenvelder, Spitzhauben, Ancona, Andalusian, Buckeye, Buttercup, Cornish, Delaware, Dominique, Dorking, Hamburg, Jersey Giant, New Hampshire, Polish, Sumatra
Ducks: Swedish, Welsh Harlequin, Rouen, Cayuga, Campbell
Geese: Roman, Pilgrim, Sebastopol, African, American Buff, Chinese, Toulouse
Turkeys: Royal Palm, Bourbon Red, Narragansett, Slate
The Livestock Conservancy makes an annual estimate of the numbers of animals of many heritage breeds. Classifications of livestock breeds include: Critical, Threatened, Watch, Recovering, and Study. A classification of “critical” indicates that fewer than 200 animals annually are registered as the heritage breed in question in the United States, and the global population is estimated to be fewer than 2,000 animals. Whereas a classification of “Watch” indicates that fewer than 2,500 animals annually are registered in the United States, and global population estimates are at fewer than 10,000 animals.
If you are looking for the rare, the exotic, and the endangered, breeds from the Livestock Conservancy Priority List may be for you. Or maybe you are just looking for a nice, all around heritage breed to add to your flock. In either event, Meyer Hatchery has something for you!