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Virginia farm toils to preserve 18th-century animals

SHARE Virginia farm toils to preserve 18th-century animals

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Red cattle graze, long-haired lambs frolic and funky-looking chickens strut about, adding to the 18th-century farm feel.

But Colonial Williamsburg isn't just trying to be historically accurate. For 15 years, the re-created colonial capital of Virginia has been striving to preserve once-popular livestock breeds that fell out of favor with farmers.

"Until very recently, I don't think people realized that these animals were being lost," said Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds at Colonial Williamsburg.

"For instance, the last Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig went to the butcher in the '60s, and probably the people who sent it off didn't realize that that was the last one," she said.

Shirley explained that until about 100 years ago, farmers tended to be generalists. A cattle farmer raised cattle to produce milk and meat, and used the same cattle to pull plows and do other heavy work.

Then farming became more specialized, and a farmer who milks cows raised a different breed of cattle than a beef farmer.

"They're really the far ends of the spectrum. So the cattle in the middle — which is what would have been used in the 18th century — are being lost," Shirley said.

Today, those cattle in the middle are not necessarily valuable economically, Shirley said. But "to lose that genetic potential that has been worked on and worked on and worked on for hundreds of generations is really very shortsighted and very tragic," she said.

For example, older livestock breeds could turn out to be resistant to certain diseases, she said. And the red-haired American Milking Devon cattle being raised at Colonial Williamsburg may not be inherently valuable, but they might have genetic information that could be helpful to other breeds, she said.

"What we really have to realize is that rare breeds are important," Shirley said. "They are a safe-deposit box for the future, with genetic potential we have not even tapped."

Consider the Leicester Longwool sheep, a breed with 18th-century roots that was developed to provide meat as well as long, curly fleece for the wool trade. The breed died out in this country in the 1930s and '40s as farmers concentrated on short-haired sheep for meat and didn't care about the long fleece, Shirley said.

Colonial Williamsburg reintroduced the breed into America by importing some Leicester Longwools from Australia in 1990. Colonial Williamsburg sometimes sells some of its animals to farmers and others interested in keeping them, and today there are 200 to 250 Leicester Longwools in the United States, Shirley said.

Specialization isn't the only factor affecting demand for certain breeds. Animals, just like clothes, can fall out of fashion when consumers change their tastes, Shirley said.

For example, supermarkets trying to please shoppers usually carry large and extra-large eggs — tough luck for older chicken breeds that lay small eggs, such as the Silver Spangled Hamburgs, among the chickens at Colonial Williamsburg.

The rare breeds program has about 25 cattle, 25 horses, 30 to 40 sheep and 80 to 100 poultry, including unusual white-and-black striped Dominique chickens that were popular until the demise of the back-yard flock in the mid-20th century.

The only rare breed at Colonial Williamsburg that isn't correct for the 18th century is the American Cream draft horse, Shirley said. That's a 20th-century breed, but Colonial Williamsburg needs sturdy, steady horses that won't spook easily among tourists.

"The significant part about what's happening at Colonial Williamsburg is that it's a sort of shop window conservation project, where thousands, maybe millions, have an opportunity to see what they are doing there," said Don Bixby, executive director of American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to protect nearly 100 breeds from extinction.

On the Net: Colonial Williamsburg: www.history.org

American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: www.albc-usa.org/