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Hoarding Faded Genes

Feds & Non-Profits Team Up
To Store Rare Breed Remnants For Future

By Alan Harman

“Father of our country” and first U.S. President George Washington would be pleased. Agricultural Research Service scientists from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture are working to ensure the endangered Hog Island sheep that roam the first American president’s carefully restored Mount Vernon farm in Virginia do not become extinct.

There are fewer than 200 registered Hog Island sheep left in a breed that dates back to the American colonial era. Fifty-four of them live at Mount Vernon.

National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) geneticist Harvey Blackburn¬óin collaboration with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) and Virginia State University¬ócollected and cryopreserved 253 semen samples from 10 Hog Island rams and added them to the NAGP collection in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Sheep have been farmed in the U.S. since colonial times, but most of the breeds from those days have been replaced by others better suited to modern production methods.

Mount Vernon provides thousands of visitors each year important insights into early American agriculture. The estate’s Hog Island sheep flock shows how sheep may have looked in Washington’s time and provides an important gene pool for present-day sheep breeders.

The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association operates Washington’s estate. Farther south, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (also of Virginia) operates Colonial Williamsburg, the largest living history museum in the U.S. Both maintain flocks of heirloom sheep.

This gives the ARS an important opportunity to save the rare and unique genetic traits of these sheep at the NAGP, where the animal collection contains more than 480,000 samples, many donated by livestock producers throughout the U.S.

“A lot of livestock genetic resources are privately owned, yet their preservation is a public good,” Blackburn says. “To conserve these materials, collaboration and interaction with the owner is key.”

Along with the Hog Island breed, NAGP has singled out the Leicester Longwool for genetic preservation.

Both breeds are now on the critically endangered list, but have regional and historical value, and conserving them is considered important because of their genetic uniqueness.

Both descended from breeds raised during the colonial era, before the advent of modern breeding techniques. They differ from today’s most popular breeds, having slower meat growth and stouter fibered wool, but they have valuable traits newer breeds lack.

Computer-assisted sperm analysis facilitates evaluation of Hog Island ram samples by ARS technician Scott Spiller (left), physiologist Phil Purdy (center), and geneticist Harvey Blackburn. (ARS photo)

Hog Island Breed

The Hog Island sheep survived in a feral condition for about 200 years on an uninhabited island off the Virginia coast and are particularly hardy.

When the flock was established on the island (one the “barrier islands” of Virginia’s eastern shore), the sheep were already native to the area. They’re believed to have had a substantial amount of Merino blood in them. There were occasional introductions to the population, the last in 1953 when a Hampshire ram was taken to the island.

The breed evolved and survived in an extremely harsh environment, on a limited diet and with no veterinary attention, until the island was sold to The Nature Conservancy in 1974 and all the sheep and cattle were removed.

Hog Island sheep are fairly light animals, with mature ewes weighing about 90 pounds and rams 125 pounds. Most are white, although 10 percent are black. Lambs may be born with spots, which disappear as they mature. Both ewes and rams can be horned. The sheep produce a medium-wool fleece yielding 3.5 to 5 pounds annually.

Although Blackburn and his colleagues have not yet acquired germplasm from the Leicester Longwool flock in Colonial Williamsburg, they did obtain 92 blood samples from the flock, with the help of Virginia State University Prof. Stephan Wildeus.

A Hog Island sheep at Mount Vernon in Virginia. (ARS photo)

Preserving Rare Genetics

The work to save sheep genetic resources began in 2006, when Blackburn and his colleagues decided to expand the NAGP sheep germplasm collection to include more rare breeds. They contacted producers and hobbyists around the country and collected blood samples from 700 sheep representing 28 breeds, both commercial and rare.

The scientists analyzed those samples and found that several of the rare breeds were genetically distinct, including Hog Island and Leicester Longwool. This means they have unique genetic traits that could be useful for researchers and breeders.

President Washington owned between 600 and 1,000 sheep, which were used to make wool and provide lamb and mutton for all who lived and worked at Mount Vernon, but whether he had the Hog Island breed is unknown, says Mount Vernon livestock supervisor Lisa Pregent.

Washington’s documents never mention the breed by name, but the Hog Island sheep probably have more in common with his flocks than with modern commercial breeds.

Mount Vernon gives visitors an important view of early American agriculture. (ARS photo)

Leicester Longwools

The Leicester Longwools living in Colonial Williamsburg have a similar story of former prominence. The once-popular breed fell out of favor as newer breeds with larger rib and loin chops, plus faster growth, rose to prominence.

The last of the original U.S. Leicester Longwools probably died out in the 1920s or 1930s, according to Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Shirley and her colleagues in1990 helped establish a new population of Leicester Longwools in the U.S. with sheep from Australia.

Shirley says conserving these rare breeds is particularly important because of their genetic uniqueness.

“The more genetic diversity you have, the more ability you have to weather whatever storm might come,” she says.

The Leicester Longwool is also known as the Bakewell Leicester, Dishley Leicester, English Leicester, Improved Leicester, Leicester and New Leicester.

It is a medium to large breed with a large, high quality carcass. They are also found in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

The breed was developed in the 1700s by Robert Bakewell, who used modern animal breeding techniques to change a coarse-framed, slow-growing Leicester into an animal that put on weight more rapidly and produced less waste when slaughtered.

George Washington was so interested in Bakewell’s ideas that he made reference to him in several letters.

The Leicester Longwools became well known in the British colonies from America to Australia and were used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to create new breeds. They had disappeared from North America by the 1980s when Colonial Williamsburg began a search that eventually led to the establishment of today’s flock.

The foundation animals for Colonial Williamsburg’s Leicester Longwool sheep came from the Australian island state of Tasmania, but now the sheep are bred at the Virginia tourist attraction from a flock totaling 30 head, including 14 adult ewes and 10 rams.

Period dress at Colonial Williamsburg takes sheep farming back to the early days.

The Race To Preserve

In the beginning, to help ensure their American survival, Colonial Williamsburg began a now discontinued Leicester Longwool satellite flock program. It grouped three ewes with a ram that were good genetic matches. These were loaned to farmers with experience raising sheep and who understood the genetic importance of the program.

Colonial Williamsburg retained ownership of the original sheep and reserved the right to move any of them if necessary. The sheep farmers received half of the lamb crops from their loaner flock.

The ARS program to gather blood and semen samples from the two breeds required the efforts of a diverse collection of people and organizations.

“Each collaborator brings to the table unique contributions,” Blackburn says.

The ALBC maintained close contact with the NAGP and has transferred the contents of its own gene bank, established in the 1980s, to the national collection. These genetic materials include more than a dozen endangered breeds of livestock.

ALBC technical program manager Don Bixby says the impetus for the most recent germplasm collection was concern about the genetic heritage of the Hog Island sheep.

“When the feral sheep were removed from the island in the 1970s, they were removed from the selection pressure that had made them so adaptable to the harsh environment,” Bixby says.

ALBC was anxious to preserve the sheep’s genetic materials before their new environments began to influence the traits that made the breed so unique, including hardiness, foraging skill, and reproductive efficiency.

The conservancy put Blackburn in touch with James Rees, executive director of the Mount Vernon estate, who was delighted to hear the Hog Island sheep had been singled out for their historic value.

“The collaboration has been quite wonderful,” Bixby says. “We had the network and the knowledge of where these sheep were, but not the resources or the technical expertise to have a significant collection.”

Blackburn says the partnership was an essential part of the process.

“Here at NAGP, we have resources and a skilled staff,” he says. “But working with other organizations has allowed us to accomplish many things that would have been impossible if we’d been limited to our own materials and expertise.

“This collaboration has drawn together a large group of people to preserve part of our nation’s agricultural history.”

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