The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Our Disappearing Heritage

Old Breeds of Poultry

Jill Cockram alerts us to the problems of shrinking biodiversity and how to help

I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of Mother Nature and the various cycles all living things experience because of it. Living in the southern highlands forces us to be very aware of the seasonal cycles that come and go all around us, the winter dormancy, then Spring at last, followed by a productive, abundant summer and a frantic autumn harvest period. Before you know it, the cycle starts again! Permaculture teaches us to plan for and take advantage of as many of nature’s cycles as possible in order to create sustainable lifestyles for ourselves and our community. But even Mother Nature can’t compete with economic cycles - the upturns, the downturns and the current trends.

Strikes me that we humans go through a few cycles of our own, not the least being the Christmas/New Year cycle of events which is upon us again. And I have realised that I have come full circle in my own life having been raised on a farm surrounded by rural crop cycles and the associated animals, then having moved to the city for many years and finally completing the cycle by moving back out into a semi-rural area to become involved in the self-sufficiency dream.

Since animals are an integral part of a permaculture system, and now that I have almost set up my Zone One/Two garden, I have introduced a few chooks into the system, and plan to perhaps have some ducks at a later stage! Whilst doing some research on types of hens to obtain, and after an educational visit to the Candelo Field Day in August with the Permaculture Southern Highlands team, I became aware of the fact that our farm livestock bio-diversity has been seriously waning over the previous few decades, as has the bio-diversity in our environment in general. The main reasons for the decline and even disappearance of many agricultural livestock breeds include the introduction of state-of-the-art farm machinery (bye bye horse-drawn implements), the introduction of intensive economy-driven animal breeding (eg chicken/pig battery farms) and the hybridisation of many livestock varieties to produce uniformity of stock at the market. It is a story not dissimilar to the recent developments in the fruit and vegetable industries, where it is often difficult to buy tasty fruit and or a wide range of specific vegies and virtually impossible to buy certain old varieties of fruit trees from the usual outlets, because it is only economically viable to stock a small range of "popular" varieties.

Fortunately, in both the fruit and vegetable industries and the farm livestock industries there are some groups of dedicated people actively working to keep the heritage varieties alive! There is the Seedsavers Network at Byron Bay, keeping tabs on the hybridisation, irradiation and genetic manipulation of our food plants, whilst fostering the sharing and dispersal of as many open pollination plant seeds by an interested group of backyard seed savers. There are a few small nurserymen who are keeping a range of old varieties of fruit trees and making scion or grafted trees available to backyard enthusiasts (Bob Magnus in Tassie and Kanangra Propagators in NSW) to name a couple) Also, groups such as Permaculture Southern Highlands hold grafting days to encourage local enthusiasts to graft/propagate heritage fruit varieties which are then kept on a register of varieties we have in the district for future propagation and maintenance.

The Australian Rare and Minority Breeds Association Inc. have been trying to garner support for the conservation of farm livestock breeds, some of which have already disappeared and many which are on the brink! For instance, Australia’s Poland China pig, the Chester White pig , the Gloucester Old Spot and Middle White pigs have all become a discontinued line! No longer to be found in Australia. So have the Cotswold and Wensleydale sheep and a range of poultry. A 25-30 year cycle in consumer demand has brought about their demise, and with them goes some of our future genetic biodiversity stocks. It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realise that the more food varieties we have to choose from, both plant and animal species, the greater our chances of survival should part of our food chain become polluted or unavailable for any reason.

But it is not too late to reverse the trend! I always liked that saying "It is better to be part of the solution than part of the problem." All we need to do is some research into which old varieties need conserving (their status ranges from "critical" to "rare" to "vulnerable") and where possible, replace existing stock with, or introduce, these endangered domestic breeds in our agricultural/backyard systems. They are often docile, easily managed and attractive to look at, so there are many bonuses to helping to conserve them. I have selected a couple of rare breeds of hens (the golden Sebright bantam and the Andalusian and Golden Spangled Hamburgh standard hens) and am having a lot of fun with them. I only wish I had a bit more room for a pair of pigs, dexter cows or an old sheep variety.

On the following page is a list from the Australian Rare and Minority Breeds Association of the mammal farm breeds requiring conservation. For further information (please include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you are requiring written information) you can contact them at:

Australian Rare and Minority Breeds Association Inc.
264 Old Spring Valley Road,
Ph: (03) 5780 1399

I have a listing of rare poultry breeds - if you would like to contact me on (02) 4883 4399 I can supply you with some info. Why not getinvolved in the conservation of old breeds - they are only marginally more expensive than the battery farm rejects and are sometimes better at foraging for food, cleaning up the insect plagues in your garden or being brood hens or good layers.

J25 Aut 99

Larger Livestock Minority Breeds

Rare and minority breeds of farm livestock and the value in preserving them where possible on small and large-scale Permaculture sites.

Apart from the work done by the odd breeding enthusiast, the diversity of livestock breeds found on farms these days is limited to a few well-known breeds, of both pure and hybrid origin. Some of the previously common farm animals like the Clydesdale and other quarter horses went out of vogue altogether with the introduction of fossil-fuel driven tractors. These draught animals are still useful on small acreages where you might be alley-cropping small areas rather than farming large monocultures of grains and where it is not necessary to bring in feedstock as there is sufficient grazing area. Not only are they feeding themselves but they’re keeping the grasses down at the same time while providing a towing service. We should be encouraged to use biological resources like this rather than to continue to import fuels such as petrol for tractors when the job can be done more sustainably by livestock on site.

This narrowing of breed diversity has evolved through global market demands, changes in consumer demand for particular fashions and tastes in food and tighter profit margins on large-scale acreages, forcing farmers to breed varieties chosen specifically for high milk or meat production and ease of handling. All this at the expense of less productive or docile breeds which may have other useful traits on the farm or in the local market. It fell to science to develop new hybrid livestock varieties to provide our farmers with the best cross-breed for optimum financial returns. With the success of gene splicing, the frontiers of science are racing ahead of ethical considerations so that in recent developments, scientists are trying to splice the genetic material from members of the animal kingdom and insert them into various fruit and vegetable varieties - the piggish soya bean to mention but one! A frightening prospect if the practice is allowed full reign without long-term observation of the results, particularly if manufacturers of genetically engineered foods are not required to label them as such. (There was a program on ABC radio last week discussing this topic and noting that in Britain there is going to be an inquiry into genetically-engineered food following tests which show that these foods can actually lower your body’s immune system.)

As you are no doubt aware, hybridised animals do not create offspring that are "a chip off the old block". Only non-hybrid females mated with purebred males of the same variety guarantee offspring showing the same genetic traits as his/her parents.

Over the last decade or so, you may have come across information about small varieties of cattle such as Lowline and Dexters. I believe that Lowline cattle are a hybrid breed but Dexters are a true mountain cattle breed originating in Ireland in the 18th century, where they were commonly used as house cows. They were first introduced into Australia in the 1880s and there are still only 500 registered pure-breds in the Australian Herd Book. Although little was known of them until the last decade or so, they are now enjoying a bit of a revival, and I can’t help thinking how well they would be suited to small-scale diversified properties (Permaculture properties spring to mind). You’ve got your old varieties of chooks, ducks and geese - now how about a small house cow or two!

Apart from providing meat and a daily supply of 10 litres of milk on average (they are apparently a good dual purpose breed), Dexters would be useful at keeping down the pasture grasses around the homestead, and ensuring a good fire-break in case of bushfire. Because they are a small breed averaging between 97-112cms in height, they require less area to graze on and, being a lighter breed, are less likely to compact the soil in wet pastures. Three Dexters can be ranged on one hectare, an area required by two Jersey cattle and as they have no special feed requirements as they will graze shrubs and weeds when pasture is limited. They are quite hardy and long-living, capable of thriving in all climates from Queensland to the Snowy Mountains and out-living the average cow by years.

All this, plus they are generally docile, good mothers and can keep producing calves up until 15 years of age. Does this sound like an Dem-tel advert for steak knives?!!

To confirm that all the claims made about Dexters in the information provided by the Australasian Dexter Cattle Association were in fact true, I contacted Bob and Judy Knott, a couple of Permaculture Southern Highlands members who have three Dexters. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the pamphlet hadn’t overstated the case and that so far the Knotts had found them to be a very manageable breed of cattle. In fact Judy is currently milking one of the cows once a day using a stainless steel bucket and is finding she is producing more than enough milk for their home use. She gives some to the chooks in their mash (good source of calcium for egg shell production) and gives the rest away. Judy pasteurises the milk by heating it on the stove to above 36(C then putting it into the freezer until a thin layer of ice develops on the surface of the milk.

If you are considering obtaining a house cow for your site, it is worth doing some research into what you need to provide in the way of shelter and a milking bale, and how you can avoid diseases such as mastitis (which all cattle breeds can be susceptible to) by attention to hygiene when milking. As with most farm/herd animals, where possible it is humane to have more than one but this will depend on how much room you have. Ideally, buy a pregnant cow which will create the milk supply upon calving and provide some company for itself at the same time. Then it is a matter of sharing the milk with the calf for a few months and working out whether you wish to milk morning and night or once daily depending on your household needs.

If you are interested in more details about Dexter cattle, you can contact:
The Australasian Dexter Association Inc.
c/- ABRI University of New England
PH: (02) 6773 3471 FAX: (02) 6772 537

J24 Summer 98-99