The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) has said it has “increasing concerns” for the UK’s rare native pig and poultry breeds following the release of its new watchlist.

The conservation charity said it is calling for targeted government action to encourage more people to keep them.

The new watchlist moves all native chicken, duck, geese and turkey breeds into the ‘Priority rare’ breed category in response to the impact on poultry breeding programmes in recent years of avian influenza (bird flu) restrictions combined with significant increases in animal husbandry costs.

The watchlist also shows major challenges for the UK’s rare native pig breeds, but a more positive and stable picture overall for native equines, cattle, sheep and goats, the RBST said.

RBST chief executive Christopher Price said: “Each of our rare native livestock and equine breeds is unique. Some have provided communities with food, fibre and power for centuries.

“As well as their great value to our national heritage these breeds have a crucial role in the UK’s transition to sustainable food production that also supports the natural environment.

“Today’s new RBST Watchlist reflects the major challenges faced by people keeping pigs and poultry over the past two years, notably the avian flu outbreaks and the sustained increase in animal feed and husbandry costs.

“We have moved all native poultry breeds to the Priority category as we continue providing urgent support for these irreplaceable breeds’ conservation.”

Seven out of the UK’s 11 native pig breeds remain in the Priority category, with most of the rare pig breeds now showing a “sustained downward trend” in total sow numbers, Price said.

“The at risk Welsh pig for example has fallen from 457 sows in 2020, to 296 in 2023. We must reverse these worrying declines before it is too late.”

RBST Watchlist

The new RBST Watchlist confirms growing concerns about a number of individual rare breeds.

The Section B Welsh pony, one of the four types of Welsh pony, has been added to the Rare section.

The RBST said it is a “small but spirited” animal that was for many generations the main transport for shepherds and hill farmers. Today, they serve as children’s riding ponies.

With a sustained decline in dams producing registered progeny (from 1044 in 2009 to below 400 in 2023), this breed is now classified as rare.

British Pig Association data shows declining numbers overall for the Priority category pig breeds, including the Berkshire pig (total sows down from 363 in 2021 to 288 in 2023), and the Tamworth pig (total sows reduced from 304 in 2020 to 239 in 2023).

The Shetland cattle breed was already in the ‘At Risk’ category and has seen a further 19% decline in the number of dams in 2023.

The Lincoln Red cattle breed was also already in the At Risk category, and has seen a further 39% reduction in the number of dams in 2023.

Government action

Price said the government’s Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme encourages farmers and smallholders to choose native breeds for grazing, but it does “nothing to help safeguard the future of our native pig and poultry breeds”.

The RBST is calling for the ELM Sp8 supplement broadened to include native pigs and poultry as well as grazing animals.

The RBST Watchlist 2024/2025 shows which of the UK’s cattle, sheep, pig, goat, poultry and equine breeds are now the most urgent ‘Priority’ concerns, which remain ‘At Risk’, and which are currently non-rare native breeds.

It reflects robust measures of the genetic diversity within each breed as well as the numbers of breeding females registered.

RBST trustee Tom Davis said: “The UK’s brilliant array of rare and native poultry is under serious threat.

“Under the continued threat of avian influenza, there is a clear decline in active breeding programmes and when breed populations are so low, losing flocks can be devastating.

“Collecting comprehensive rare breed poultry data to steer conservation efforts is a serious challenge, and we really need more people to be encouraged to keep these birds and work with RBST and breed societies to help conserve them for the generations of the future.”