Heritage Breeds Week: Promoting Endangered Breeds of Goats
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Story and Photos by Sarah Howell Butcher May 15–21, 2023, marks the ninth annual International Heritage Breeds Week. Created by The Livestock Conservancy in 2015, it’s celebrated every third week of May to promote global awareness of endangered heritage breeds. The week brings stewards and the community together to share stories of how these breeds have influenced their lives, environments, and local economies.
The need for livestock conservation is significant. Ten percent of livestock breeds have become extinct, with an additional 26% at risk. Of the 576 breeds of goats, 19 are extinct, 90 are at risk, and 310 have no available conservation data. The Livestock Conservancy lists five goat breeds in the United States on its conservation priority list.
- Critical: San Clemente Island; Arapawa
- Recovering: Myotonic/Tennessee Fainting; Oberhasli
- Watch: Spanish
The decline of many breeds has paralleled the modernization of agriculture and the focus on maximizing production over other valuable traits such as adaptation to localized habitats, mothering skills, and parasite resistance. The loss of these breeds represents a loss of genetic diversity. It places food security at risk by eliminating the potential genetics needed to combat future pests, diseases, and environmental shifts. Though the number of breeds at risk is still increasing, the efforts of The Livestock Conservancy and sister organizations worldwide have slowed the rate. Continued promotion through campaigns such as International Heritage Breeds Week is one of the reasons for the slowing trend.
Though year-round promotion of breeds is essential for overall success, the platform of International Heritage Breeds Week shines a global spotlight on the need for agrobiodiversity and the conservation of heritage breeds. It’s an opportunity to reach an audience beyond those involved in the movement. Celebrations range from social media posts to open houses to larger-scale events such as the 2021 United States Postal Service Heritage Breeds stamp release held at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
San Clemente Island goat (SCI) breeder Erin Link of EB Ranch Farmstead in Ridgeland, Wisconsin, has been utilizing press releases and product discounts to promote the week and her SCI goat milk soap. SCIs are a critically endangered, small, multi-purpose breed from the Channel Island of San Clemente in California. Once with a population of 15,000, they now number approximately 2,000 in North America.
“Since (Heritage Breeds Week) happens in mid-May, I try to have a press release written no later than early April. Making connections is important; much of the general public doesn’t realize what heritage breeds are. What connects people are stories. Stories about kids being born, not getting any sleep during kidding, mending a sick goat, and sharing trials and tribulations. In the mix, you can pepper in the value of heritage breeds, of course.” In addition, Erin has been a guest speaker at markets to discuss heritage breeds. “I encouraged people to talk about their heritage breeds and why they liked them.”
To expand their SCI goat milk soap business, EB Ranch recently rented a downtown workshop where Erin plans to add new events for International Heritage Breeds Week. “I plan on bringing down a doe and her kids for people to meet. In addition, I hope to partner with other farmers to showcase heritage breeds. In the mix, I will offer at least one make-and-take class. Probably making goat milk bath bombs, though I may be offering a goat milk soap-making class.” Hands-on experiences with heritage breeds and their products help people connect personally.
On the other end of the spectrum is Conner Prairie. Conner Prairie is a 501(c)3 living history museum depicting 19th-century living in the White River region of Indiana. The museum is steward to several endangered heritage breeds, including Arapawa goats. Arapawas are a small, multi-purpose breed originating in New Zealand. Currently listed as critical on the priority list, the population is estimated at 211 in the US, with an additional 300 worldwide. Emily Nyman serves as Conner Prairie’s livestock coordinator and president of the Arapawa Goat Breeders Association.
“Conner Prairie started celebrating Heritage Breeds Week in 2021. We have a lot of extra programming about our heritage breeds that we don’t typically get to do, which makes it more fun for both the guests that visit and us! During Heritage Breeds Week, we have special programming like seeing our Randall Lineback oxen, watching chicks hatch, and a shearing competition between my co-worker who hand shears and me with the electrical clippers! We do some creature features where you are able to visit and touch each of our heritage breeds throughout the week and learn more about them. The Arapawa goats seem to be a fan favorite, especially as the goat kids are racing down the road and back to mom. Our textiles staff work hard to spin and weave a product made with our Tunis sheep wool, and this is just a small snippet of the fun things we offer throughout the week!”
Wish to participate in International Heritage Breeds Week? Emily has the following advice for stewards. “Start small! The best thing anyone can do when promoting Heritage Breeds Week is think about what you are already doing in the day-to-day stuff and see if there is a way you may be able to post about it online. Maybe it’s you milking a goat — take a picture or a video, and post about it online while educating others about the breed that you have and why it is special! You can also see if there are other heritage breed owners in the area, and you may be able to collaborate and do a live video where you answer questions about the breeds you both raise. ”
One can expand by hosting an on-farm demonstration, class, or open house. Consider partnering with a local feed store to host a multi-farmer event with heritage breeds. Erin’s advice, “Any steward can do this! I promise! Always ask for help and look around for inspiration.”
The public’s participation in International Heritage Breeds Week is also required for success. You can help spread the news and educate by sharing posts from local farms and organizations about heritage breeds and their products, use the hashtags: #IHBW and #HeritageBreedsWeek, support farms that raise heritage breeds, and check out The Livestock Conservancy’s directory for heritage breed products to find someone local.
By bringing awareness to endangered heritage livestock, International Heritage Breeds Week helps to further the preservation of these breeds and their genetic diversity and decrease the risk of their extinction.
- IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. E. S. Brondizio, J. Settele, S. Díaz, and H. T. Ngo (editors). IPBES secretariat, Bonn, Germany. 1148 pages. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3831673
- Amills, M., Capote, J., & Tosser-Klopp, G. (2017). Goat domestication and breeding: A jigsaw of historical, biological and molecular data with missing pieces. Animal Genetics, 48(6), 631–644. https://doi.org/10.1111/age.12598
- Jones, S.K., Estrada-Carmona, N., Juventia, S.D. et al. Agrobiodiversity Index scores show agrobiodiversity is underutilized in national food systems. Nat Food 2, 712–723 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00344-3
Originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.