By Sherri Talbot
The best way to save a rare breed from extinction is to find a purpose for it.
In the late 1920s, the American Chinchilla rabbit was one of the most popular rabbits in the United States, with a record number registered with the American Rabbit and Cavy Breeders Association. Their use in the meat and fur markets made them a common choice for rabbit breeders nationwide. Then, in the 1940s, the bottom fell out of the fur market, and rabbit meat consumption in the U.S. began to decline. A few decades later, what was once the most popular rabbit in the country is now considered critically endangered — on the verge of extinction.
There is a tendency to think of heritage breed animals — especially those on the critical list — in the same category as exotic pets. Many conservation breeders raise these livestock simply to keep them from extinction, with no further thought to marketing them for a purpose. Some will even object to the idea that they need a purpose or will protest use that involves meat or fur use.
However, we can study heritage breed animals’ rise (or decline) in numbers and find a pattern. Breeds that successfully recover their numbers to a sustainable population find a niche purpose that makes them popular. The American Chinchilla, for instance, has moved from the critical list to “watch” as people began reconsidering rabbit as a meat source.
Currently, The Livestock Conservancy recognizes five goat breeds needing oversight based on registration numbers. The Myotonic (Fainting) goat and Oberhasli are both considered “recovering,” the Spanish goat is on the “watch” list, and the San Clemente Island Goat and the Arapawa remain at critical levels. The Nigerian Dwarf goat was removed from the list in 2013.
Nigerian Dwarf Goat
The Nigerian Dwarf goat is, of course, the most successful of these heritage breeds. From a population of fewer than 400 goats registered in the 1990s, the population now boasts more than 1,000 new registrations yearly. With their pleasant personalities, small builds, and high butterfat content of their milk, the Nigerian Dwarf goat has become popular with hobby farmers, as pets, and for small-scale milk production. The breed standards recognize this, with specific size requirements for registration and emphasis on the need for quality milk production, including the high butterfat content they are known for.
The Oberhasli Breeders of America has made an effort since its formation in 1976 to maintain the Oberhasli breed genetic purity and have it acknowledged as a breed separate from the Alpine for registration purposes and — later — to perfect its use as a dairy goat. The Oberhasli Breeders of America website discusses their use as a dairy goat on almost every page. Discussion about their production abilities, improvements over time, and the current milk production records and butterfat content are included. The American Dairy Goat Association recognizes the breed and is now considered a specialty dairy breed goat. Breeders choosing to buy Oberhasli breeding stock will know exactly what they are getting and what they can expect.
Myotonic (Fainting) Goat
The Myotonic Goat Registry and International Fainting Goat Association have likewise been working on improvements to the breed to give them a niche spot as a meat goat. Both organizations strictly control for body formation, meat production, reproductive capabilities, and growth rate. This means a potential buyer can be assured of quality, registered animals, and understand the production value of their animals.
The Spanish Goat is one of the oldest goat breeds in the Americas. They were popular with the Spanish as a multipurpose breed when sailing, and their presence on exploration ships got them a ride to the Southern United States about 300 years ago. While the Spanish goats have not had a stable breeder association, according to The Livestock Conservancy, they maintain a niche market in Texas. Their heartiness and good reproductive capabilities make them an attractive choice to ranchers. However, the purebred herds are often crossed with other breeds to produce a superior meat or cashmere. This causes concerns about the long-term sustainability of the Spanish breed but has also allowed for faster growth than they might have otherwise experienced.
Looking at the success of these breeds can give other heritage breeds some direction for improving their own visibility and conversation status. Website design, public impression of the animals, and improvement in the breeds have all played a role in these breeds gaining popularity and numbers.
While the Oberhasli breeders were dairy goat owners, and the Spanish have become popular with ranchers, the less successful breeds have been promoted mainly by animal conservationists. These breeder groups were primarily formed due to a desire to save the breeds from extinction. While this is a valuable cause, it can result in a different outlook toward their livestock. For example, the SCI and Arapawa breed descriptions have far less emphasis on breed improvement or production value when compared to the more prominent breeds.
For experienced farmers and ranchers, the lack of production information makes taking on the project of a critically endangered breed an uncertain proposition. This makes the likelihood of maintaining a stable breeding population uncertain. Without a long-term objective, these breeds will be regulated to exotic pet status and overlooked by the breeders able to establish larger, sustainable herds. Farmers and ranchers with livestock experience and connections have the best opportunity to increase these breeds’ numbers. This has shown to be true of all endangered livestock species — the breeds that thrive are those that have a purpose.