Native Livestock Breeds of Great Britain

The British Isles is home to a myriad of livestock breeds which are endemic to certain areas. Since Britain began its great push out into the wider world, explorers and settlers have travelled to all parts of the globe, taking with them cattle, sheep, horses and pigs.

The many livestock breeds endemic to Britain have adapted over the centuries to the particular conditions of their area. Until travel and transport methods improved there was little interchange between the areas thus animals evolved with characteristics which ensured their survival in their local region. Some breeds were ‘improved’ in an attempt to develop certain traits which would improve their production levels and marketability.

Over time, with the improvement of livestock management as regards management and husbandry, special attributes became somewhat less important. A few breeds became extinct and others are still battling to hold their place. Over more recent times, the value of retaining all breeds is being recognised and hopefully it is not too late to save what is left of these so-called ‘heritage’ breeds.

Horses and ponies
Britain’s horses and ponies have spread throughout the world. Its mountain and moorland ponies are now found in huge numbers in most countries. A few, such as the Galloway, are believed to be extinct. Others, such as the Kerry bog pony and the Eriskay, have been close to extinction.

Traditionally, mountain and moorland ponies belong to any one of nine breeds with another two being added more recently.

The mountain and moorland breeds are: Connemara, Shetland, Welsh, Exmoor, Dartmoor, Dales, Fell, Highland, and New Forest. The two relative new-comers include the Eriskay and the Kerry bog pony. Included under the Welsh umbrella are four recognised types: the Welsh Mountain Section A, Welsh Section B, Welsh Cob Section C and Welsh Cob Section D.

Each of the mountain and moorland breeds has evolved from a distinct area, often moorland or heathland of limited grazing and harsh conditions. This has led to hardy ponies able to survive under tough conditions but prone to obesity and associated problems if allowed free access to more lush pastures.

Several of the breeds still live in a semi-feral state on unenclosed common land. Local citizens have grazing rights to these areas and may run cattle or ponies. Ponies kept in this way include the New Forest (pictured below), Welsh, Exmoor and Dartmoor.

New Forest Ponies(56761)Credit: Wikimedia

Typically, mountain and moorland ponies are stocky and tough. They usually have profuse manes and tails which help keep the bitter elements at bay.

Draught horse breeds which are endemic to the British Isles include the Clydesdale, the Shire and the Suffolk Punch. The Suffolk Punch is in danger of extinction. There are now less purebred Suffolks than there are panda bears.

The Cleveland Bay, Hackney, Irish Draught and Thoroughbred are another four breeds developed in Britain for miscellaneous purposes.

Britain also has a large number of sheep breeds. Many take their name from the county of their origin and many have established themselves in other countries. There are over thirty types endemic to the British Isles. Some of these are the Bluefaced Leicester (pictured below), the Border Leicester, Border Cheviot and Brecknock Hill CheviotClun Forest, Dalesbred, Dartmoor (several types), Derbyshire Gritsone, Devon Closewool, Dorset Down and Poll Dorset, Exmoor Horn, Hampshire Down, Herdwick, Kerry Hill, Jacob, Lleyn, Hill Radnor, Romney, Rough Fell, Swaledale, Suffolk, Southdown, Shetland, Welsh Hill Speckled Face and Welsh Mountain (several types). Minor strains include the Lincoln, Ryeland, Oxford Down, Shropshire, Teeswater and Wiltshire Horn.

Blue-faced LeicesterCredit: Wikimedia

Following the UK Foot and Mouth epidemic in 2001, there are now more breeds threatened by extinction. The scrapie genotype testing of sheep, known as the National Scrapie Plan, has also been responsible for the reduction in numbers of some breeds.

The cattle of Britain often show their origin in their breed name. Some of these are the Aberdeen Angus, Ayrshire, Hereford, Devon, Jersey, Guernsey, Gloucester, Belted Galloway, British White, Chillingham Wild Cattle (pictured below), Dexter, English Longhorn, Highland, Irish Moiled, Kerry, Luing, Lincoln Red, Red Poll, South Devon, Red Angus, Shetland, Vaynol, Sussex, White Park and Welsh Black. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust classes several of these as ‘at risk’, ‘vulnerable’ or ‘critical’.

Chillingham Cattle(56759)Credit: Wikimedia

After World War II the demand was for large, quick-growing cattle capable of producing lean meat from commercial concentrates. These larger breeds were imported mainly from the continent and displacement of traditional British breeds brought some breeds close to extinction.

Britain’s native pigs were once large, rangy and lop-eared. Crossing with small, fat, prick-eared Asian breeds during the late 18th century saw the development of new types which formed the basis of native British breeds. Breeds which became extinct include the Cumberland, Lincolnshire Curly Coated, Ulster White, Yorkshire Blue and Dorset Gold Tip. Traditional values and increasing awareness of the value of retaining all breeds has led to an increased interest in heritage pigs which thrive under non-intensive management practices. ‘Primitive’ breeds have less trouble digesting poorer plant life and take on a specialist work in the forest. Their rooting habit clears the floor of scrub plants and seedlings.

The population of individual pig breeds fluctuates according to the cost of feed and the selling price of stock. Diseases also remain a threat to all native species. Some of Britain’s native pig breeds include the Gloucester Old Spot, the Berkshire, Hampshire, Large Black, Large White, Welsh, Yorkshire, Middle White, British Lop, Oxford Sandy and Black (pictured below), Saddleback, Wessex and Essex and Tamworth.

Oxford Sandy and Black SowCredit: Wikimedia

Some of these heritage breeds are ideal for smallholdings where the commercial value of an animal may not be the main factor in deciding which breeds to purchase. By considering the purchase of a purebred animal from an ‘older’ breed, the continuing survival of such breeds would be more assured.