In 2003 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) celebrated its 30th anniversary and is now widely recognised as the national non-governmental organisation responsible for rare breeds of farm livestock in the UK. No breed of farm animal has been lost since 1973 and there are now 72 breeds which meet the Trust's criteria for recognition as a rare breed. These criteria, which are regularly reviewed, take into consideration how long the breed has existed, the number of adult females and geographic distribution. With one or two notable exceptions, the breeds listed by the Trust have built up numbers and have become well distributed. However, all rare breeds still face an uncertain future but their greatest enemy is no longer immediate extinction but extinction by stealth. The sustained downward pressure on livestock farming in the UK, National and European government legislation, loss of genetic diversity and public indifference make a dangerous combination.
So what can an organisation like the RBST do, funded entirely by membership subscriptions, donations and legacies? The answer is a great deal! Firstly, we need to make people care, so that Governments and legislators listen and consider the implications of new (and existing) legislation on rare breeds. There is strong evidence that where people are seen to care, then government does listen to ‘umbrella’ organisations like the RBST lobbying on behalf of a small and sometimes fragmented sector of the industry. Widespread concern during the early days of the recent Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic in the UK enabled the Trust to secure unprecedented exemption for rare breeds of sheep and pigs from contiguous culls. However, unlike captive zoo collections or wild populations, the individual cattle, horse/ponies, pigs, poultry and sheep/goats belong to individual breeders! Without their support, co-operation and participation, progress can be difficult and slow.
This national role, to be effective and comprehensive, must be grounded in sound science, reliable technical data and impartial information. The Trust now has the expertise and the tools to quantify the genetic diversity in rare breeds while offering practical solutions to some of the problems facing rare breeds. The RBST is doing a great deal but there is still much to do. The next 30 years promise to be as important in securing the future of the UK's rare breeds of farm livestock as the first 30 years were in rescuing them from extinction.