Adam Henson: Protecting our rare breeds

PUBLISHED: 16:22 17 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:42 17 August 2015

Gloucester Old Spot pig

Gloucester Old Spot pig

Mike Charles

Wherever you go in the British Isles, there's hardly a county or a region that can't claim its own distinctive breed of livestock

The Henson family name and the subject of British rare breeds are pretty much inseparable. Since the 1960s when my dad moved to the Cotswolds and started to highlight the plight of our threatened native livestock breeds, we’ve been associated with them; everything from primitive varieties of Scottish sheep to the wild ponies of upland England. So you can imagine how delighted I was when the Countryfile team suggested a new series of assignments for me. During the coming months, I’ll be filming Adam’s County Breeds, telling the story of our native cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry, goats and horses as well as meeting the dedicated people who keep them.

Wherever you go in the British Isles, there’s hardly a county or region that can’t claim its own distinctive breed of livestock at some point in history. From the Cornish Black pig to the Shetland pony; the map of the UK is just like a history lesson in livestock farming.

But it’s important to point out that not all the county breeds of the UK are rare or under threat. Of course there are some which are so few in number that their status is officially declared critical or endangered, like the Cleveland Bay horse and the Boreray sheep. But many others are doing well with plenty of breeding females to keep the bloodlines going, including Belted Galloway cattle and the Welsh pony and cob.

Gloucestershire is particularly proud because the county is home to three distinctive local breeds; one from each of the main livestock varieties. The biggest and most majestic are Gloucester cattle; beautiful mahogany coloured animals which were used for meat, milk and as working beasts. The Cotswold sheep is a longwool, characterful breed with a proud history of bringing wealth to the mediaeval wool merchants of the area. Then there is the Gloucestershire Old Spot Pig which fell out of favour in the post-war years when leaner pork and bacon was the order of the day. But now it has become arguably Britain’s best-loved and most-recognised pig breed. My dad remembers taking Old Spots to Gloucester Market back in the 1960s and being laughed at by his farming friends. Now everybody wants them. How times change!

The county also has a couple of lesser known novelty breeds. The Khaki Campbell duck originates from Uley and was developed in the early years of the 20th century by a poultry breeder called Adah Campbell. She crossed a really good egg-laying Indian Runner with a variety of other breeds to create the bird we know today. The Campbell half of the name is self-explanatory but what about the khaki part? Well when Mrs Campbell saw the fully-grown offspring, the colour of their plumage reminded her of British army uniforms, and a new breed name was born.

Have you ever heard of a Cotswold Legbar hen? If not you may have seen their pastel blue coloured eggs. They can trace their heritage back to the 1920s when an explorer from Stow-on-the-Wold called Clarence Elliot travelled the globe collecting rare plants and animals. The Legbar came about thanks to a breeding programme at Cambridge University.

For most people their only experience of county breeds will be on a visit to a Farm Park or at one of the big agricultural shows. There are still some of these traditional countryside events to come this season, including the Moreton-in-Marsh Show on September 5. It’s one of the largest one-day events of its kind in the UK and as well as an array of animals of all types, shapes and sizes, it hosts the National Poll Hereford Show, the National Show of Cotswold Sheep and the Welsh Pig Champion of Champions. It’s a great day out and a wonderful way to get to know the native breeds of Britain.

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