Rare find: how eating endangered animals could save them from extinction

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust is campaigning for restaurants and chefs to put historic breeds of pigs, cows and sheep on the menu to ensure they don’t die out.

18 April 2018
image credit: @thepointerbrill

Meat unique to Britain could disappear unless endangered animals end up on diners’ plates.

It’s an unusual concept, but the UK’s Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) is encouraging restaurants and chefs to embrace Britain’s most threatened pigs, sheep and cows, creating demand to save them from extinction.

“If we don’t eat them, no one will breed them,” Tom Beeston, CEO of RBST, tells Food Spark. “There is very little government funding for keeping livestock, and if we lost some of these breeds they would be lost forever. And we will want their genetics sometime in the future.”

The Trust has released a danger watch list highlighting dozens of historic UK breeds that are in peril, as farmers prefer modern hybrids that help to maximise profit when using intensive farming practices.

“[Rare breeds are] probably the most ethical meat you can eat, because they virtually all graze or eat naturally, they are slow grown, the fat on them is healthy and they taste good, and they’re part of British heritage. You’re also buying what you think you’re buying – you can’t intensively farm a rare breed, so it will be looked after and have a happy life.”


Breeds with lowest number of females

  • Vaynol cows – 12
  • British landrace pigs – 138
  • British lop pigs – 161

Noble heritage

Food Spark has explored the growing demand for heritage meat before, but Beeston believes more needs to be done to promote little-known breeds, particularly as provenance continues to gain momentum with the public.

“If there is the move away from intensive big farming to outdoor big farming and the consumer demands something different, then you need different base stock, like the rare breeds. This is the stock that all our commercial breeds come from, so you need that horde of genetics for the future,” he says.

So what’s the background on these rare breeds?

Pig problems

Out of all the animals, Beeston is most worried about pigs.

British landrace and British lop pigs are among the top five breeds that are in extreme danger.

While the UK’s appetite for bacon continues to rise – it formed part of 87 million more breakfasts between 2016 and 2017, according to Kantar Worldpanel – the demand for pork over the past few decades has led to intensive production of pigs for lean meat with little waste.

Rare breed pigs like the Gloucestershire old spot and Tamworth do feature on gastro-pub menus, but the RBST is aiming to create a market where consumers actually ask for these animals when they go out to eat.

Beeston notes that supply could most rapidly meet demand with pigs, since a sow will typically have two litters a year with 12 piglets.

Restaurants already putting rare pigs forward include The Pointer in Brill, which has its own farm raising Middle Whites. These porkers are free to forage, before eventually ending up as terrines, salami, pulled pork and slow-roasted suckling pig.

In London, Chef Cyrus Todiwala is an ambassador for the RBST, working with the group to build relationships with restaurants and stressing available supply chains.

Todiwala uses the British lop pig from Cornwall in a Goan vindaloo at his Indian restaurant, Café Spice.


Cattle not in danger with female numbers

  • Holstein Friesian – 684,000
  • Friesian – 134,400
  • Holstein – 123,600

Cattle prod

The Trust’s push on rare breeds is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, as it has proven that rare breeds can be saved with its approach. Highland cows used to be on the danger list in the 1970s, but are now popular with consumers.

Of greatest concern today are Vaynol cows, which originated in North Wales but are critically low in numbers. The dozen breeding females have been dispersed across three sites to reduce the risk of disease wiping them out entirely.

British white cattle also being hit hard, with a significant decrease since last year. Beeston says the RBST are working with Anderson’s Bar & Grill in Birmingham to rear a small herd of the breed for the restaurant.

Seaweed-eating sheep

With concerns over the environmental impact of farming animals and even ethical issues relating to their feed, saving some vulnerable beasts now could be beneficial in the future.

North Ronaldsay sheep, which live on a Scottish island, feed off seaweed, having developed the ability to digest the sea vegetable. This function could later be bred into other sheep as a way to incorporate sustainable feed.

Long term, Beeston also has his sights set on labelling, with hopes of overturning today’s old, voluntary system. He says if breeds are being advertised on packaging, then there should be a pedigree certificate to back up the claim.

There is certainly a case for ordering rare.

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