The Galway Breed - Breed Conservation

From Dr. P. L. Curran's Book
"The Native Lowland Sheep of Galway & Roscommon"

Ireland's Old Breeds of Livestock:

The efforts which have been made, and which continue to be made, to increase the productivity of livestock reduce their genetic diversity. The prospect of cloning greatly increases that threat. Because the modern highly productive breeds give greatest output in intensive farming systems, there has been a reduction in total numbers within the more traditional breeds and an extinction of some breeds. The expression "extinction is forever" continues to have validity with regard to the loss of rare breeds of domestic livestock. It is true that advances in DNA technology may enable ancient species to be recovered from portions of mummified tissue preserved by chance in unusual circumstances, but the application of such technology is most unlikely where rare breeds are concerned. The advantages of viewing living, breathing specimens - conserved through traditional farming methods on terra firma - is self-evident.

Even primitive (as opposed to traditional and modern) breeds may be bearers of genes which could prove useful in changed circumstances. Thus, all livestock breeds - primitive, traditional and modern - are worthy of conservation. The Roscommon Long-wool breed of sheep probably is quite extinct at this stage, but may have conformed to our notion of 'traditional'. Its close-relative, the Galway, is another long-wool breed, but it continues to have a place in modem farming. The official descriptions of these two breeds reveal something of their similarities and reflect ancestral relationships. The Roscommon was larger, more long-legged and slower maturing than its surviving relative which has a better quality fleece. Unfortunately, the poor price commanded by wool at this time is just about adequate to pay for the cost of shearing.

Reasons for Conservation:

(a) Cultural
In most cases, each of the primitive and each of the traditional breeds is associated with a particular country or province or district. They contribute to environmental diversity and counteract the monotony of uniformity. Some display distinctive territorial behaviour in their natural setting. They represent part of the heritage, history, the way-of-life and the landscape of an area. This cultural dimension to these two breed categories becomes more important with the passage of time, and their continued existence becomes a resource for rural tourism. In some cases craft products (such as báinín knitwear) form part of the culture and the tourism.

(b) Scientific
Those of us who have lived through most of the 20th century are acutely aware of the extraordinary environmental change which has taken place -environment being the conditions or influences under which any person or thing lives or is developed. Despite all our technological advances, uncertainty remains as a major characteristic of the future. In changed circumstances some of the genes or gene combinations in primitive and in traditional breeds may prove useful to mankind, and the financial poverty of many civilizations keeps modern technology as a distant prospect. For this reason all such breeds should be conserved. Furthermore, there are dimensions of science that impact on heritage. For example, the reconstruction of evolutionary pathways to demonstrate relationships between breeds can reveal affinities or connections between cultures.

(c) Agricultural
Some aspects of farming have been affected by vagaries of fashion. Subjective showing decisions, followed by inordinate publicity for the winning animals, gave rise to fashionable strains within modern breeds with a consequent erosion of less publicised strains. Merit classes based on objective measurements are a much better method for selecting superior animals and can be applied also to the less prominent breeds, but intense selection may narrow the genetic base.

Commercial livestock units frequently have successful enterprises based on a specific programme of cross-breeding, that is established breeds are used to produce vigorous cross-bred parents of the commercial end-product. A breed cannot continue in existence unless there is a central core or nucleus of pedigree stock which maintains the essential characteristics of the breed, which has become - through selection - "an artificial product" compared to the ancient ancestral race. Such intense selection pressures generate a move towards homogeneity within the breeds useful in commercial farming. The trend needs to be counteracted by the conservation of diversity within traditional sub-populations maintained to some degree outside of mainstream agriculture. The revenues to support such enterprises are generated in the tourist sector rather than in the food production sector. Heritage parks have an important part to play in this matter - a part which is not yet properly delineated and organised in this country.