From my Dog World Blog on 3 June 2016.

You can certainly tell that summer has arrived when the county shows begin. I visited the Devon county show the other week and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint. While Marc showed the dogs I wandered around Westpoint and visited the various livestock exhibitions.

It’s always incredible to see how such a small island has managed to create and develop so many breeds of cattle, sheep and poultry, especially impressive when they are all presented together in one place. The breeders of these pedigree animals are very keen for the public to get close to their beautiful animals and wandering around the pens it was fascinating to see the displays some of these proud owners had put up, illustrating their breeds’ long and often illustrious histories.

What really caught my eye on many of the breeders’ advertisements was the proud boast that their animals came from a completely ‘closed’ stud. Purity of blood is something that is sought after and celebrated. Many of the old and rare breeds are known and kept for their hardiness, prolificacy, great mothering skills, abundant milk and easy care. The genetic potential from these pure breeds are also extremely valuable in crossbreeding. You can’t have profitable crossbreeds without a bank of pure breeds that remain reservoirs of hardiness and incredible abilities.

The ‘primitive’ breeds of sheep are particularly fascinating. A number of breeds have sprung up on the Scottish Islands, surviving in relative isolation. The Soay, for example, possesses incredible hardiness. Purebred Soay lambs are sought after for the taste of their meat and they are an easy to care for sheep with no shearing or lambing problems. Purebred Shetland sheep possess a naturally short tail, their rams are known for their docile temperament and the ewes are great milkers and mothers.

The North Ronaldsay sheep exhibition was particularly thought provoking; here is a breed that is said to be a direct descendant from the Iron Age sheep. Back in 1832, the sheep were banished to the shoreline and kept out of the fields. With no shelter and no grass available these sheep had to adapt to eating seaweed – they had to eat it or die. Of course, seaweed is high in iodine (and would prove deleterious for most other breeds of livestock fed solely upon it), however this tough little breed of sheep now digests seaweed more efficiently than any other. Seaweed contains a substance that makes the absorption of copper very difficult and owners of the breed (when taken from their normal environment) have to watch out for problems of copper toxicity.

The equally small Hebridean sheep once again arose in splendid isolation and is a breed whose history is long and lost in the mists of time. What we do know is that this is a tough and thrifty little animal that is highly valued in crossbreeding programmes. The purebred Hebridean is noted for its longevity.

The purebred pigs had similar tales to tell.

The Tamworth, our native ‘red’ pig, has a proud heritage that may trace back right through the Middle Ages to the wild boar. Because the purebred Tamworth is genetically purer and so very different from other breeds of pig, it imparts greater hybrid vigour when used in crossbreeding programmes.

The British Lop (a breed of pig I was thinking of owning) is one of our largest breeds and retains the economical ability to maintain itself on grazing and, unlike most hybrids, it is still mainly raised outdoors. Sows are renowned for their maternal instincts. Once again these valuable traits built up over decades of careful breeding are exploited to good advantage in crossbreeding.

The dish-faced Middle White’s numbers dropped to an alarming five boars and 27 sows after the war but it is now the pig of choice in Japan and the superior taste of its pork has brought about a renaissance in its home country too.

And this theme of how breeds sink to such alarmingly low numbers and, then, with careful breeding, manage to bounce back so successfully is extremely thought provoking. Take the charming and very tough little Exmoor pony (a herd of which lives close to me). After the war, numbers had fallen to just 50 ponies and only three stallion lines. This breed has a unique trait; the ‘toad eye’ – a fleshy pad over each eye that protects the pony from the harsh weather Exmoor experiences. This animal is a British national treasure and thankfully it was preserved and purebred ponies can now be encountered in several herds right across the moor. Of course, it is thanks to the formation of the Rare Breed Survival Trust that we still have these wonderful breeds, formed when many ‘enlightened’ farmers thought that with the creation of productive modern hybrids, these old breeds were best consigned to the history books. I specialise in keeping and breeding rare breed poultry and have witnessed this myself. Although these hybrids do often lay more and put on weight far quicker than the breeds they were created from, poultry keepers have noticed that they also often require far more ‘mollycoddling’, have the lost the ability to forage and lack the disease resistance that the old traditional breeds had built up. Thankfully interest in traditional poultry breeds has been maintained and is increasing and they can be seen in all their glory at shows like this.

Another interesting thing to witness at the shows is how these animals are primped, washed and plucked, tails brushed out, coats teased and hooves buffed and shone. The pride their owners have for their animals and the enjoyment they get from showing them off is clear for all to see. Strangely enough, when the media covers them there doesn’t seem to be the same sniggering and derision that is certainly aimed at dog showing.

I think it’s all too easy to feel isolated in the world of pedigree dogs (as if we are the only ones carefully breeding to a standard and maintaining our various breeds and pedigrees) but if you get a chance go along to one of our county shows this summer, you’ll soon see that we certainly aren’t alone in our love and appreciation of purebred animals.

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