Take On Threatened Livestock Breeds
As 20th-century industrial agriculture has favored specific traits, diversity has diminished Modern Noahs
The undaunted pigs have just arrived from England. Teatime, they are told, will be on Sunday. Quicker than you can say, ''Gloucestershire Old Spots,'' they snort and grumble, and bury their 200-pound bodies in the hay for warmth and dignity. Sunday indeed.
Robyn Metcalfe offered teatime last week to playfully introduce the pigs to the local media. Come get your porcine quotes directly from Patrick, Princess, Muriel, Princess Mary, and Josephine. But Metcalfe's promotional gambit (or pigbit?) is part of her serious effort to ensure the preservation of rare breeds and offer public access to Kelmscott Farm's educational activities and products made from some of the animals.
Mrs. Metcalfe and her husband, Bob, founded Kelmscott Farm here last year to preserve rare livestock breeds. After only a year of operation, the farm is now home to a veritable ark of rare animals, including: a huge Shire horse named ''Pete,'' Shetland and Dartmoor ponies, Katahdin Hair sheep (with tails), Jacob sheep (a small, multihorned breed mentioned in the Bible) and rare chickens. A pair of horned Kerry cows from Ireland will arrive in the spring. And the tall llama towering over the sheep in the barn is ''Coco,'' the implacable security guard.
Genetic diversity at stake
Watching the pigs grumble in the hay, Metcalfe says, ''With the loss of many livestock breeds, we are losing genetic diversity. Some of the animals already have organizations that are cheering them on, but we want to go after the ones that really need help. We also think of these animals as living history.''
Inside the barn at Kelmscott Farm, the temperature is in the teens. Outside, knife-like wind blows snow in all directions around the cluster of white buildings on the hill. Jolly old England was never so brutishly cold for pigs of such pedigree.
These pigs will grow to a lumbering 600 pounds, Metcalfe says, grinning with delight that the five of them have finally arrived. Prior to their arrival, only 12 other lop-eared Gloucestershire Old Spots were known to be in the United States. And only a few hundred survive worldwide, according to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). Now for the first time in years, the US will have a breeding group of pedigreed Gloucestershire Old Spots.
What has happened to domestic species, in contrast to wildlife, is that over the years genetics in livestock have been segregated and selected for uniformity by man. Turkeys, for example, are now grown quickly, with bulging breast meat, in response to the marketplace.
''But a turkey is now a creature approaching biological unfitness because it can't reproduce without human intervention,'' says Don Bixby a veterinarian and executive director of the ALBC. ''Without massive human support, our commercial turkey industry would be extinct in one generation. If we don't have genetic diversity among livestock, then we don't have options to change.''
Although not faced with that kind of extinction, Gloucestershire Old Spots grow too slowly for today's swift commercial needs. The pigs also have more fat on their bodies than most other pigs.
But Metcalfe and other breed conservationists suspect that what is commercially viable today could spiral into disfavor tomorrow. Or disappear entirely. If so, Kelmscott Farm, and other farms around the country that foster rare breeds, will have breeds with sought-after characteristics.
Old Spots are very hardy, manageable, and a grazing breed, which means they can be turned out to graze in summer, thus saving on the cost of feed.
''In the old days, many animals were multipurpose,'' says Nick Richardson, Kelmscott's farm manager from England, noting the example of the Cotswold sheep. Providing long, curly wool with a high luster, the sheep were introduced to England by the Roman Army for wool and meat.
Today most people prefer softer wool than the Cotswolds provide. Synthetic fibers are also popular, and farmers simply want a faster-growing animal. So while they once numbered in the tens of thousands in the US in the 1900s, by 1954 only one flock of Cotswolds existed in England, and in 1978 only 78 lambs were registered in the US.
''The Romans didn't care that Cotswolds were slow-growing because they wanted the meat and the wool. Now we want everything to grow at 60 miles an hour,'' Mr. Richardson says.
Building sheep populations
Several dozen Cotswold sheep now reside in the pens at Kelmscott Farm. And a cooperative venture with the University of Maine involves Cromwell, a black Cotswold sheep from Kelmscott being studied for his blackness. Across the US, the Cotswolds' numbers have risen to between 1,000 and 1,500.
''To preserve rare breeds,'' Metcalfe says, ''one way is to find useful commercial purposes.'' Through a distributor, Kelmscott sold fresh lamb last year free of antibiotics or added hormones. Even at $15 a pound, the lamb sold out in three days at the French & Brawn Marketplace in Camden, Maine.
In addition, Kelmscott's small catalogue offers Cotswold wool scarves, blankets, duvets, hats, berets, and skeins of yarn for sweatermakers.
What motivated Metcalfe and her husband, Bob, to create Kelmscott Farm is symbolically realized in their Kelmscott rug, a 3-by-5-foot wool rug offered in the catalogue. It is based on the designs of William Morris, the 19th-century English poet, designer, and social reformer.
Kelmscott is the name of Morris's summer home in England. This year marks the centenary of his death.
''What we want to do here,'' Metcalfe says, ''is embody Morris's beauty-plus-utility philosophy throughout the farm and our lives.''
Bob Metcalfe, Robyn's husband, founded the 3Com Corporation in 1979, is the inventer of Ethernet, and now writes a column for InfoWorld magazine. ''Even though we were quite comfortable,'' says Robyn of their life near San Francisco with their two young children, ''we felt we wanted a total change of lifestyle to connect to values we cherished.''
The family spent a year in England, and slowly Robyn's interest in sheep and farming began to grow. ''Horses are so expensive,'' she says. ''And when I learned that Cotswolds were really on the critical list, sheep seemed like a natural place to begin this adventure.''
But all was not smooth on the road to Kelmscott. ''In California, where we had sheep for a while,'' Robyn says with a laugh, ''I was reported for llama abuse. I left them out in the rain.''
Because the Metcalfe family had spent several summers in Maine, they decided to look for a farm here to launch their dream. ''We looked at this property first,'' says Bob, ''and then went to 20 other farms before we came back and bought it.''
The farmhouse, now renovated and expanded, sits on a high hill with a stunning view of their 145 acres. The original barn is used for horses, and a new barn is for the sheep and pigs.
In the warmer months, schoolchildren visit here, and the farm is open to visitors on weekends. Study material about the animals is available - and why not be an adoptive parent of Princess Mary for $25? The farm also has a site on the Internet. ''When children visit us,'' Richardson says. ''we give them a button that says, 'I had a wild and wooly time at Kelmscott Farm.' ''