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"Irreplaceable" Breeds of British Sheep May be Lost to Foot-and-Mouth

SALISBURY, England—Valuable breeds of British hill sheep are being decimated by mass slaughter of healthy animals as government officials, with the help of the army, attempt to contain relentless spread of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

The culling affects all sheep living within two-mile (three-kilometer) "fire break" zones of each infected farm in the worst areas of the districts of Dumfries, Galloway, and Cumbria. Cumbria, in northwest England, is adjacent to England's renowned Lake District, which although under threat remains uninfected.

dead sheep

The British army continues to destroy and dispose of thousands of sheep, including these near the village of Ellonby, near Penrith in Cumbria, northern England.

Photograph by Jeff J. Mitchel/Reuters NewMedia, Inc./Corbis

Throughout the country, healthy stock around infected farms will also be destined for slaughter as a preventative measure.

In killing the sheep, however, British officials are putting the survival of several unique breeds of sheep—some whose behavior has been finely tuned over hundreds of years—in jeopardy.

Losing Bloodlines

The National Sheep Association (NSA), with the support of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), has voiced strong opposition to the cull in favor of an alternative scheme.

"We are now losing so many of our important bloodlines that the cure is becoming more damaging than the disease," said John Thorley, chief executive of the NSA.

"It is bad enough taking out stock which are actually suffering from the disease, but the removal of healthy contiguous flocks should only be done after a proper assessment of the risk to the flock and to onward spread."

As there are only limited stocks of frozen semen and only a few embryos for these breeds, the NSA and the RBST are suggesting that key animals from doomed flocks are spared to retain the valuable bloodlines of breeds such as the Herdwick, famous for their hardiness in surviving extreme winter conditions on the Cumbrian mountains.

They are recommending the placing of selected healthy specimens with genetic merit, in isolated and quarantined locations on farms within the areas concerned.

Two weeks after the organizations put forward their alternative plan, the government has not responded. The NSA is now urging farmers not to allow their best breeding stock to be destroyed.

It is essential that the unique "hefted" sheep are saved, for without them hill farmers cannot function. Hefted sheep have acquired over generations—lambs learning from their mothers—the extraordinary ability to roam free on specific areas of the hills without straying, and without need for fencing.

If the wholesale destruction continues, countless small family farms may be wiped out, and certain breeds that have supported substantial farming communities could be reduced to tourist curiosities.

Other farming bodies are lending their support to saving threatened breeds, including specialist herds of cattle as well as flocks of sheep.

"We have lost Welsh black cattle herds with bloodlines recorded for 400 years as part of the policy to cull livestock contiguous to the infection," said Anthony Bosanquet, president of the Country Land and Business Association.

"Britain's native sheep and cattle breeds are a very precious part of both the farming and rural tourism industries. We believe that ways must be found urgently to ensure that they do not disappear forever."

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