American Working Farmcollie Association

ES breed conservation

Breed Conservation for the English Shepherd

I was invited by an English Shepherd colleague to share some comments about livestock breed conservation as affects rare breeds and maybe not so rare breeds of dogs. This may be a useful outside-the-box approach to canine genetics, or it may not be useful to you at all. Obviously there are differences between livestock and the dogs who work them, but perhaps there are more similarities than you might think.

My experience comes from 12 years as program coordinator of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), the U.S. nonprofit organization which protects genetic diversity in domestic animals through the conservation of rare breeds in ten species of livestock and poultry. Following is a short summary of three main points in A Conservation Breeding Handbook (1995) I co-authored with Phil Sponenberg. (For information on ALBC or on the Handbook, consult the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), at or call 919-542-5704 in Pittsboro, North Carolina, USA).

1. The significance of breeds: A true breed – in the genetic sense – is a significant agricultural resource because it is predictable genetic package for farmers and animal breeders. Stefan Adalsteinsson refers to the breed as a “genetic heritage of survival,” meaning that each breed’s unique history is reflected in its genetic makeup.

When I became an ES owner and involved in the breed, I was surprised to find that many dog geneticists were eager to throw away the breed concept, finding it hopeless corrupt. I think this assumption results from only looking at corrupted breeds. In fact, conservation of the distinct, true breeds within a species is essential to the survival of the genetic health, breadth, and utility of that species.

There are four kinds of livestock breeds in North America: landraces, standardized breeds, industrialized strains, and feral stocks. The first two are of relevance here. Almost every domestic animal breed started as a landrace. The landrace is generally a local population that is consistent enough to be called a breed but more variable than a standardized breed. In livestock, landraces have been shaped by founder effect, geographic isolation, and environmental adaptation as well as by breeders’ goals. Landraces tend to be more consistent in complex characteristics than they are in appearance, though they are still unique enough to be distinguished from other breeds. Landraces generally lack the tight organizational structure that people associate with standardized breeds.

It is very common for people unfamiliar with landraces to deny their existence as breeds, to “improve” them through crossbreeding until they are nearly extinct, and to even try to destroy them, such as the U.S. government attempting to kill all of the Churro sheep owned by the Navajo people in the 1930s and giving them improved breeds instead that could not survive in that extreme environment.

Standardized breeds are what most people think of when they think of breeds; in fact, standardized breeds are the only kinds of breeds that many people recognize as breeds. Standardized breeds began as landraces but were developed further when a group of breeders agreed upon a “standard,” or definition, and agreed bred towards this ideal. As a result, uniformity and predictability were increased and diversity was reduced. There are generally written records, a registry (or more than one), and a breed association, all of which serve to isolate the breed genetically. The mindset in standardized breeds is that there is a single ideal to which all breeders should direct their intentions. Often this ideal is the founder male (ie. Justin Morgan of the Morgan breed).

Most landrace breeds are now becoming standardized breeds. While there is the danger of loss of diversity in the search for greater uniformity and organization, there may also be more potential for conservation. What’s essential is that breeders of landraces and standardized breeds alike recognize that there is always a balanced between the pull of uniformity and the need for diversity.

2. Managing inbreeding: How can rare breeds manage the inevitable problems with inbreeding? In other words, will my breed still be around in 20 years? And if it is, who is breeding that line of good mama dogs that I’m going to need as an outcross? ALBC’s model of breed conservation is drawn from Phil Sponenberg’s experience with and observation of how rare landraces survived as vigorous breeds despite small numbers. They survived in isolated geographic pockets and family herds/flocks. For example, early this century, nine family herds were all that remained of the Texas Longhorn, yet these nine remnant herds were the basis for its survival and today the breed is flourishing. The same pattern has been true for many other breeds. How did this happen?

Draw a circle that represents a breed, and then draw some small circles inside it, with some of the circles overlapping a little and some not. The smaller circles represent the historic lines of within the breed; they act spacers, keeping the circle from collapsing. This can also be compared to the spokes of a wheel, an analogy I made from the Tao Te Ching chapter which says ‘we join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the inner space that makes the wagon move.’ By breeding these lines in somewhat different directions, with slightly different priorities, the breeders are linebreeding but in different and complementary directions. Thus the potential problem inbreeding is being managed through the use of linebreeding. When any of the lines need an outcross, a male or female can be brought in from another line because there is always an outcross available within the breed.

In contrast, if everyone breeds the same direction – by always breeding the most distantly related animal and selecting for the same few priorities, each generation will have less genetic distance than the one that came before. The breed becomes slowly inbred all in the same direction. When an outcross will be needed, the breeders will then have to go outside the breed. This is how you get that mama dog or stud dog you need down the road. Of course, linebreeding has to be carefully managed. Breeders have to be alert for any signs of loss of vigor, loss of reproductive fitness, or unsoundness, and be willing to cull their breeding stock. They have to know the strengths and weaknesses of their lines. And for that reason, only a few breeders in a breed will take this responsibility on. Line-cross animals – which often have nice bloom and presence from the hybrid vigor of the cross – will always predominate in the breed.

3. The role of breeders: Breeds of livestock and dogs are a genetic resource to be conserved, but how does this happen? Like other genetic resources in agriculture, they must be used in order to be conserved. Diversity can only be saved through diverse strategies, and many people must be involved. (These “rules” of conservation were developed by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney in Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity (1990, Univ of Arizona Press). This is relevant if you think of dogs as still having a niche in agriculture. I think that such a niche is a key element to the survival of many old herding breeds.

Across North America, around the world, and through time, rare breeds have been saved only by the stubbornness and persistence of individual breeders. These “old codgers” (and some young codgers) have often defied the advice of economists and expert animal breeders and kept on working and using the historic stocks that their families had always had. Keeping the animals on the payroll, improving with historic type, letting stocks adapt to the times but not be transformed: this is the work of stewardship. This is the work that protects the legacy that we have inherited from the breeders who came before us.

Breed conservation is more vital today than ever before. If the dog world is to retain its most unique and useful breeds, the breeders themselves must learn to trust their own instincts as well as to rely on experts. Most expert recipes have been developed based on breeds in a state of disaster – breeds which are weakened by genetic disease, inbred to a handful of show ring winners, and intensively selected for a few market-driven traits. This is maybe the equivalent of “hard cases make bad law” in the legal world. Worst-case scenarios may be useful for the worst cases are encountered, but they should not be the foundation for strategies of breeds which are basically sound even though they are rare.

Carolyn Christman
Mebane NC
September 21, 2003

more about landrace breeds