Stewards of rare breeds inevitably deal with small gene pools. As a result, many stewards learn to recognize breeding lines that are valuable because of both correct breed type and desirable genetic diversity. As a steward of the Fell Pony breed, I have identified breeding lines that I consider especially valuable. I was saddened, then, when I learned the other day of the loss of one breeding line that I especially admired.
A few months ago I received a letter from the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). I was a bit surprised by its content. It was urgently imploring breed stewards to ask for help before downsizing their rare breed populations. At the time, it was the economic turmoil of our world that was of concern. Now, later in the year, the skyrocketing price of feed is also stressing breed stewards. The ALBC letter outlined potential strategies for preserving valuable genetic resources when times are difficult. This letter immediately came to mind when I heard about the dissolution of the Fell Pony herd that I admired. Eighty years of breeding are likely gone forever because the herd’s steward was facing economic difficulties and chose not to ask for help.
One of my ponies is from that herd, and I admit I’m now looking at my pony differently. For the moment, I consider my pony more valuable to the breed than I did before. My pony is actually linebred on that herd, meaning both its sire and dam were from that herd, so my pony seems doubly valuable. I not only love my pony for its type but now especially for the unique breeding line it carries.
After I received the sad news about the dissolution of my pony’s birth herd, I went out to see my pony. I was expecting a visitor the next day who wanted to see my pony move, so I took a stick with a plastic bag on the end to encourage movement. I got a good laugh but not very good movement. I try to desensitize my ponies to plastic bags so that they do not spook if one blows by them on the wind. When I was shaking the plastic bag, my pony would move a few yards, then turn and face me and clearly indicate confusion. Am I supposed to stand still or move? I gave my pony a big hug for trying to please me by doing both.
My mentor helped me pick out my pony. My mentor is well into his eighties and has been in agriculture his whole life, so he is familiar with the cycles of ups and downs in livestock markets. I, on the other hand, am relatively new to agriculture, and this downturn doesn’t seem like a cycle so much as a permanent correction because my experience is so limited. The steward of the herd I admired was more like me than like my mentor, so it’s easy for me to understand the desperate measures the steward felt they needed to take. The urgent tone of the letter from ALBC makes more sense now.
My mentor has told me to keep my hands on my pony from the lost herd. I assured him I would. For now, at least, I’m viewing the current state of the livestock market as character building rather than requiring desperate measures. Today I talked to a steward of another herd that I admire that is also imperiled. I am fortunate to have a pony from that herd, too. The status of these two herds has caused me to pause and reflect on my role as a steward of this breed. Somehow that seems different now, too.
© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012