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Rare Breeds

Volume 129: debated on Thursday 10 March 1988

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.39 am

It is enormously pleasurable to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in his place. He is a rare breed in the House. He is the only hon. Member with personal knowledge of the meat trade. No one can gainsay the importance of that. I am certain that he will share my feelings of nostalgia and heritage when listening to the roll call of cattle and pig breeds that are now threatened with extinction. The cattle breeds facing extinction include the Irish Moiled, the Kerry, the Gloucester, the Shetland, the white park, the British white, the longhorn, the beef shorthorn, the Dexter, the red poll and the Chillingham. The pig breeds facing extinction include the middle white, the large black, the Berkshire, the Tamworth, the British lop, the British saddleback and the Gloucester old spot. What marvellous names they are and how sad it would be if they were to disappear into the mists of antiquity.

The achievement of today's livestock producers in terms of food and sheer fecundity is quite remarkable. However, one regrets the homogenisation and rationalisation of the breeds, and I say that as a stalwart defender of the Hereford herd. I firmly believe that in terms of reliability, predictability and adaptability that breed has no equal as a pure bred beef animal and as a beef bull to put to a commercial dairy cow. The Hereford is not a rare breed today because the breeders have been able to respond to the market place as that has changed, although they can in no way become complacent about that as it is always under threat.

It is true to say that the beef animal market is highly competitive. Feed conversion to weight is carefully analysed. Growth rates, killing out ratios and fat to lean ratios are all carefully displayed with pride at shows such as Smithfield and the Royal Show as the figures surpass one another. That is all very competitive. Similarly, dairy cattle are judged by their ability to respond to feeding in respect of milk volume output. The changes brought about by quotas have served only to increase the fine tuning. Butter fat is no longer particularly wanted; the maximum output from the least number of cattle is the prize.

It was remarked to me the other day that it was sad to see on the Sunday night veterinary soap opera on the BBC that such great attention is paid to getting precisely aged calves as props, but that all the cattle were black and white and of the same breed. That was very disappointing. What of the various and varied breeds that were so prevalent at the time that the series sets out to portray? It is a sobering thought that between 1900 and 1973 at least 20 breeds of British farm livestock became extinct.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say "Good heavens."

I am worried by the fact that there are two trends in the countryside. On the one hand, there is the ever-increasing pressure on developing breed uniformity. I have been guilty of advocating that in another context. To witness that we only have to look at the uniformity of shape of lambs displayed for show at Smithfield market—and the New Zealanders are particularly expert at that. One could take the rear or hind quarter of one lamb and shove it on to the front of another and they would match up precisely. There would be no way of telling whether they came from the same beast. That is inimical to the maintenance of a wide variety of breeds.

On the other hand, the countryside itself is changing as we try to come to grips with our excellent technical expertise and so get more out of less. There are two ways in which we can proceed. We can continue intensification of output, producing better and better yields from a narrowing base of breeding stock choices, or we can go back down the road to extensification. Too far down the former road, with no attention paid to maintaining a wide variety of breeds, and we would find ourselves in a blind alley and when we realised that the whole system could possibly be destressed by the use of breeds that are more tolerant of indifferent feed or calve more easily, the alternatives might not be there.

Surely the merit of so many of those threatened breeds is that they are the product of a peasant economy. When the breeds were evolved, they were evolved not with maximum output from maximum input in mind, but when economy of production was the yardstick. With the current reappraisal of farming practice, it is those presently rare breeds that will play a vital role when the emphasis of production changes.

When I look to see who is looking after this future, I see a dedicated band of enthusiasts — not wealthy or hobby farmers, but those who generally have small acreages and who are not particularly flush with cash. I hand it to them for their persistence and prescience. These are the very people of the countryside—country men—whose gut feeling is that proper insurance should he taken out now to be ready for the day when, or if, change is needed. The scale of their operations generally is such that in today's fiercely competitive scenario they will never make a profit from their activities in respect of rare breeds. They are not keeping rare breed animals to make a profit, and I do not believe that they ever want to, but they are playing an invaluable part in providing the means of developing a more balanced agriculture, as this shift in emphasis in the countryside progresses.

In recognising the credit due to these people, one recognises in full the dedicated work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Its track record since inception in 1973 has been enviable and most encouraging. The way in which the owners of rare breed animals have been co-ordinated by this tightly run and effective organization—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Donald Thompson)


I am delighted that my hon. Friend agrees. That co-ordination must have kept in being many outposts of rare breeding which would otherwise have been lost. It is a first-class example showing how a small contribution from many people can be harnessed to good effect for the benefit of all.

I have remarked how rare breeders are not in the game for profit, and I hope that l have demonstrated what an invaluable insurance policy a spectrum of rare breeds makes in a changing agricultural environment. It is a pity, therefore, that the activities of these people and their contribution should have been accidentally blighted by the imposition of charges for the approval of bulls and boars under the Artificial Insemination (Cattle and Pigs) (Fees) Regulations 1987, basically in consequence of the Agriculture Act 1986. I must shoulder a fair share of the blame. I participated in the Committee on that agriculture legislation and this dimension escaped my notice, as it did all the other Members of both Houses who were involved. That is not to say that this is set in stone. It is time to recognise that an error has been made. I should also like to think that it escaped the Government's awareness, too. I hope that my point will be viewed in that light.

The effect of the regulations is that these rare breed owners have to pay the full £204 for their bulls to be approved, just the same as the owner of a commercial dairy bull. The difference is that, although these charges are quite high, they take no account of the use that is to be made of the semen from the bull or the boar; thus the cost per straw is bound to be higher for organisations such as the Rare Breeds Survival Trust or for people who just breed rare animals whose sires are relatively little used and which are not normal commercial breeders.

The rare breed bull may have as few as five straws sold and used each year compared with the more than 3,000 — I have heard figures of 5,000 quoted — from a commercial bull. That is a big difference in cost per straw. It is not surprising that a longhorn breeder, who, by the terms for breeding longhorns applying within the Council of Longhorn Breeders, is permitted to sell only 25 straws a year, can recover £25 a year against an outlay of £204.

In addition, recognising that the semen may not be capable of being frozen, the farmer may be prudent enough to ask the Milk Marketing Board to come in advance, at a cost of £50 plus travelling expenses—say, a total of £80—which means that he is investing £280 in the bull for a return of £25 a year. Although the semen may be sold for several years afterwards, it is not a big return, and he will never recoup his approval fees. The fact that the farmer continues to keep longhorn bulls shows that it is a labour of love and a recognition of the desirability of sustaining a breed against a time when it might be more useful in the countryside than today's breeds.

As part of the retention of rare breeds, and the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, 50 per cent. of the semen drawn off bulls is retained by the Milk Marketing Board in its bank of genetic variation. That is a magnificent contribution to the cost of the insurance policy that I have described.

About 12 months ago, correspondence between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was terminated. It was terminated disappointingly and, I thought, less than satisfactorily. I have read it all, and it relates to the requests of the trust that special consideration be given to its specific needs in carrying out its work and incentivising — that horrible word—or making it reasonably attractive for the small rare breed owners to continue their invaluable work for posterity. The Ministry's attitude was inflexible and disappointing.

I know that it costs the same to approve every bull or boar regardless of the use that the owner makes of it, but the system is rough justice on rare breed owners and on the trust, which is trying to provide a genuine public service and which has no chance of passing the extra costs on to a relatively limited number of potential or actual users. I also appreciate that another problem for the trust in making its case is that, although there is a need for gene banks or pools such as those for some rare breeds, it could be said that with the ready availability of techniques such as genetic engineering, multiple ovulation and embryo transfer the need is not as great as it was. The trust could be described as a luxury in an environment generally hostile to such marginal activity. It is regrettable that cattle and pig breeds have become so homogenised. It is an inevitable and sad consequence of modern methods of livestock breeding and production.

The Ministry has been intransigent in its attitude to the trust's case on behalf of itself and its members. The trust believes that it has had no reasonable explanation of why the Ministry is so intransigent and why it does not recognise the rough justice.

I have looked through Hansard and I see no record of the statutory instrument which imposed the fees for artificial insemination being debated. It probably went through with a plethora of other statutory instruments when the attention of the House was concentrated more on the end of a Parliament.

The issues as they affect this case have not been publicly explored before. I cannot help but wonder how these charges are made up. There is considerable dissatisfaction and distrust within the livestock industry as to the way in which dairy inspection charges are made up. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the controversy surrounding those charges, and I believe that the Minister intends to instigate a review of the charges to see whether the charges reflect an accurate recovery of the costs actually incurred in making the inspections. Certainly £204 and £145 for the second charge are very accurate pricings. All of the other charges on the schedule in the order are precisely annotated.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say this evening how those charges are made up, or write to me later to explain how the figures are derived. I hope that my hon. Friend will press the Minister to look again at this problem as it affects rare breeds. The cost of ameliorating the charges in respect of the work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust would be about £7,000. I venture to suggest that that is a mere bagatelle to the Ministry, although it is a fortune to the trust. If it is not deemed desirable to amend the order, which I do not believe would be difficult to do, perhaps thought can be given to how a grant could be made available from funds within the Ministry's budget.

There was at one stage a considerable element of research involved with the use of rare breeds, and I should like my hon. Friend to bear that factor in mind. There is a good case for supposing that a programme of research would enable these breeds to help to deal with nutritional problems in the Third world by providing livestock for use in environmentally hostile circumstances, bearing in mind the fact that many of these breeds were brought about by a peasant economy when there were not today's lush circumstances for harbouring livestock.

It is difficult for rare breed owners to understand the Ministry's reluctance to help. They point out to me that the Ministry is going to pay not inconsiderable sums to farmers to manage fallow land or perhaps to start alternative enterprises in the countryside. A grant of, say, £7,000 is just not enough to facilitate the continuance of an important initiative. I put it to my hon. Friend in this way. He might go along with the suggestion that each rare breed owner should register his agricultural holding with the planning authority as a rare breed park. In that case, he might qualify for a grant under the rural diversification plans under the Agriculture Act 1986. I pressed for that provision, and I was delighted that it was eventually incorporated in the Act. I make the suggestion in jest, but many a true word is spoken in jest. Perhaps we can take it a little further.

Either way, I look to the day when we begin to de-homogenise our livestock—what a ghastly phrase that is — and then perhaps, in the words of a rare breed devotee, we can have from the Vale of Gloucester double Gloucester cheese from an old Gloucester cow. That is our heritage, and our rare breeds surely form part of our heritage every bit as much as Parliament or Hereford cathedral. I very much hope that my hon. Friend will have listened sympathetically to what I have said, and will be helpful.

2.59 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Donald Thompson)

I listened sympathetically to my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and I am delighted that he was able to secure this debate. The time is irrelevant, because the breeds under discussion stretch back to before the 1800s.

As my hon. Friend said, the needs of the market cannot always be paramount. I am sure that my hon. Friend has read Surtees' "Hillingborough Hall" and all those marvellous tales of farming in the 1840s and 1850s; the same complaints were heard then as now. I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember the squire in "Hillingborough Hall" saying, "There is too much land taken up in corn, we ought to have more in trees." Indeed, only last week I heard my hon. Friend say that.

As my hon. Friend said, we cannot always have clone animals — peas in the pod. That is desirable for the supermarket shelf and may look pretty in some fields at some time. The other day I was lucky enough to see a man's Cambridge sheep. He was trying to develop a more prolific strain of sheep. The last thing on his list was to get those animals cloned—animals must be made efficient first.

My hon. Friend read a list of some rare breeds and there is no doubt that they were bred especially to fit exactly the area they came from. Exmoor ponies, Dales ponies, Clydesdale ponies and Cleveland bay ponies bear the name of their homes. Indeed, one only has to look at those areas to understand why those animals were bred.

Developments in modern agriculture coupled with the ease by which international transport of livestock, of semen and of embryos can be carried out has led, as my hon. Friend said, to a rapid decrease in the number of breeds of domestic livestock in commercial use throughout the world. The move towards uniformity inevitably results in the loss of genetic material that could be required for use in future farming systems here, in the Americas or in the Third world. An awareness of that problem led to the formation in this country of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973. The trust, which is a registered charity, carried out a census which identified those breeds most in need of assistance. Breeds were then arranged in groups and graded on a priority basis.

My hon. Friend said that he was unable to discover a previous debate on this subject. Therefore, I hope that the House will bear with me if I go into a little detail—not tedious detail—so that, in future, people can check the record of this debate.

Rare breeds are graded on a priority basis. Priority one means criticial; priority two means rare; priority three, vulnerable; priority four, below numerical guidelines; priority five, just above numerical guidelines; and priority six, feral—wild animals. All rare breeds are graded into those six sections.

By 1983 a census revealed a healthy increase in the population of the breeds on the trust's list suggesting that the trust has been successful in conserving rare breeds of British livestock. That position has held good up to the present day with the exception of the pig breeds, a number of which are still at risk due to the lack of profitability in the industry and the difficulty of keeping breeding pigs as a hobby. Not every pig is as lucky as the Tamworth pigs that are kept in the backyard of our ex-colleague, Lord Cranborne.

The argument that rare breeds contain genetic material which may be of value in the future cannot be denied, but perhaps it is less probable than is sometimes imagined. It is much more likely that the basis for future improvement will be the best material already available from modern breeds. Of course, genetic engineering techniques are being developed all the time, where a single gene can be cloned or inserted into another. The technology of gene transfer is already available on an experiemental basis and may soon be available as a routine practical procedure, but I do not wish to travel down that avenue tonight.

However, the technology of identifying suitable genes to be transferred lags far behind and geneticists are not at present able to identify any genes in a rare breed that have the merit to justify transfer into a modern breed, but, as genetics expand and improve, that may not be the case for ever.

The trust deals in a number of activities. It operates an approved centre scheme, covering both private breeding centres and farm parks open to the general public. All approved centres are regularly inspected by the trust's officers and must comply with detailed regulations governing registration, breeding policy, management arid husbandry. There is a monthly magazine called The Ark published by the trust. It is intended to publicise the trust's activities and inform members about matters relevant to rare breeds. Circulation of The Ark is about 7,000 copies.

There is an annual rare breed show and sale which is held in September at the National Agricultural Centre and provides an organised event at which keepers of rare breeds can obtain fresh stock and newcomers can obtain foundation animals. That is now a successful event with an attendance of approximately 10,000 people over two days.

There is also an embryo storage study. If the concept of total breed conservation is to be meaningful, consideration must be given to the establishment of embryo banks in which freshly fertilised eggs are stored. That would enable whole breeds in all known lines to be preserved. A feasibility study is being undertaken, supported by a grant from Shell International Chemical Co. Ltd, to examine that area.

There is a breed structure analysis. With very small breeds, it is essential to avoid unnecessary inbreeding. To do that, it has been necessary to research relationships within breeds and to calculate how to make the best use of the existing blood lines in sound breeding strategies. Computer technology has been used to produce essential and accurate guidance for many of the breeds on the trust's priority lists.

There is, of course, a semen bank. In any breed of cattle whose numbers are small and kept in widely separated herds, it is economically unrealistic for most owners to maintain their own bulls. The availability of a reliable artificial insemination service is vital to the continuation of such herds. It is the policy of the RBST to make available supplies of semen from numerically small breeds and the aim is to provide at all times a choice of sires within each breed. To that end, the trust arranges for selected bulls to be used for semen supply, 50 straws of semen from each being made available to breeders and a further 100 doses being deposited in the RBST semen bank for long-term storage. The possibility of extending the service to pigs, goats and sheep is kept constantly under review.

The trust maintains a flock of North Ronaldsay sheep in Orkney, performs a breed liaison function, runs demonstrations and workshops for members, registers congenital defects, gives grants to breed societies, provides registration facilities for breed societies and funds research and investigations.

The Ministry has been involved with and interested in the work of the RBST since its inception in 1973. It is most satisfying that considerable progress has been made in putting many of the rare sheep breeds on a more stable footing and many of the rare cattle breeds are now in a much safer position. We are aware that a number of pig breeds are threatened and the trust, supported by advice from ADAS, is making progress in this area.

It is self-evident that rare breeds contain genetic material which may be of value in the future, and the availability of genetic engineering techniques whereby a single gene can be taken from one animal and inserted into another brings closer the possibility of being able to use such material. The Ministry will continue to take an interest in such developments, to determine when and how they may benefit the industry and what help and encouragement the trust needs to achieve its objectives.

The trust tells me, through my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford, that what it really needs is help with the £204 veterinary testing of bulls.

I ask my hon. Friend not to intervene until I have finished — I can see that he thinks that I may have missed the point that he made, or that I may not come to that at all.

The charges were introduced in accordance with the Government's long-standing policy that costs of services should be recovered when there is clear benefit to the consumer. The principle that charges should be levied on all those using the service applies across all ADAS charges. Charges are kept to a minimum to ensure that animal health standards are maintained. My hon. Friend made his point about the £204 and £145 clearly. He also suggested a number of ways in which the Ministry might be able to help, although I do not propose to discuss dairy inspection tonight. He mentioned grants and research; I mentioned "adopt-a-bull".

I suggest that, as we have now made our respective positions on rare breeds clear for all to see, my hon. Friend should continue the debate with me in private, to look for ways in which to surmount this difficulty and discover how long it will continue. I appreciate what he said about a small cost to MAFF and a large cost to him, but the small costs line up outside my door, down the steps, around Whitehall, up past the Horse Guards and right back to Downing street every day. So we must select the best course of action.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. I now suggest that he comes to my office as soon as he likes and we shall discuss his suggestions—and any that we may add—in more detail.