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The southern margin of Europe is the home of many widely varied types of sheep - about 120 breeds are identified in the literature. During the course of the survey in the area, 49 breeds were seen, of which 11 were common breeds included for purposes of comparison with the others. The salient characteristics of the breeds that were surveyed are presented in Table 3 (at the end of the book).

Of the 38 less common breeds, 18 were found to be endangered, and 6 were vulnerable. Of the others, one was classified as rare, 11 were not threatened, and the status of two breeds was indeterminate.

In the countries of the western Mediterranean region (Portugal, Spain, France and Italy) about 77 percent (17 of 22) of the less common breeds are either endangered (Status I) or vulnerable (Status II), compared to approximately 44 percent (7 of 16) in the eastern Mediterranean (Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey). See Tables 4a and 4b, which recapitulate Columns 1 and 8 of Table 3.

The breeds surveyed in the western Mediterranean countries show greater uniformity in environment, flock movement, and use than the breeds surveyed in the eastern Mediterranean (Tables 5a, 5b, 5c), for example, most of the 18 less common breeds surveyed in France and Italy are varieties of mountain sheep, are transhumant, and the owners' income is derived from lambs sold for slaughter. The correspondence of each of these three characteristics to breed status is consistently high:

Mountain environment: 10 of 11 breeds endangered or vulnerable;

Transhumant: 12 of 14 breeds endangered or vulnerable;

Use for meat: 11 of 13 breeds endangered or vulnerable.

Why have the breeds declined?

Crossbreeding for meat was found to be the primary cause for the decline of 50 percent (12 of 24) of the breeds endangered or vulnerable. However, 11 of these 12 threatened breeds are in the French Pyrenees and in the Alpine regions of France and Italy. Although the market for lamb in these countries has stimulated production, buyers have become more discriminating and demanding of quality. As a result, the old, minor breeds have been crossed for improvement, or displaced.

In contrast to the western Mediterranean countries, where meat breeds of sheep are preeminent, eastern Mediterranean sheep are valued for milk as well as meat, and crossing is more common for the improvement of dual-purpose sheep (dairy and meat) than for single-purpose (meat) varieties. However, for the majority of the endangered and vulnerable breeds surveyed in the eastern Mediterranean, the primary reason for decline is that sheep raising has become depressed or abandoned (Fig. 3, Column 9) for reasons discussed below.

Complex factors of change

The present survey found that the status of minor breeds is affected by a complex of factors, including demographic change and the impact of new socio-economic mobility in rural communities. The contrast as to status between the western Mediterranean countries and those of the eastern basin reflects in large measure the difference in the nature of the economic and social changes that have taken place in the two geographical regions during the past thirty years. Traditional ways of life for rural peoples have been profoundly changed in the western countries, especially France and Italy, where most of the direly threatened breeds are found. Conversely, the population numbers of the minor breeds tend to be stable in the areas that remain culturally, as well as geographically, remote from the mainstream of national life.

In some places the traditional system of husbandry was changed or became disused and the sheep breed associated with it declined (e.g., Lamon, Dubrovnik, Skopelos).

In many areas, the influence of the central government is felt more strongly than in any period in recent history. Many new regional agricultural-livestock research stations have been established, and trained personnel of the Ministries of Agriculture are resident in the areas to advise the local people on matters of husbandry, and to make available to them breeds of livestock new to the area (more often for purposes of crossbreeding with local varieties than for their displacement). In some countries (viz. Greece) cross-breeding has been augmented by large-scale programmes for artificial insemination (ZERVAS and BOYAZOGLU, 1977).

The changes of the past thirty years have affected species of livestock as well as breeds within species. In general, cattle have been of primary interest in development programmes for livestock. In northern Greece, for example, a major effort has been made to establish a large-scale dairy products industry based on milk from herds developed from imported grade cattle. As a result, old breeds of both cattle and sheep declined in the region.

Environment and breed status

Mountain sheep constitute 45 percent (17 of 38) of the breeds surveyed, and 46 percent (11 of 24) of those classified in Status I and II. Although almost all of the mountain breeds surveyed in France and Italy are either endangered or vulnerable, only one of the four mountain breeds surveyed in Greece is threatened. On the other hand, all four of the lowland breeds surveyed in Greece are either endangered or vulnerable. While the economy of French and Italian communities in the mountains and high valleys of the Pyrenees and the Alps has been profoundly altered by new industries and tourism, such changes have been much more lightly felt in the highlands of Greece. There, and in the other eastern Mediterranean countries, new development is located chiefly along the coast and in the interior plains. Generally throughout Mediterranean Europe the old sheep breeds in the lowland are vulnerable to extinction because there are more opportunities there than in the highlands for employment in occupations other than sheep raising. The breeds that are most critically affected are those that are traditionally kept in small numbers as household flocks, which have become marginal in the rural economy.

Environment, use for wool, and breed status

In the mountainous areas of the eastern Mediterranean there are few alternatives to sheep raising, and the breed numbers have not yet declined precipitously as in the case of the less-common mountain in breeds in France and Italy. However, the owners are confronted with grave problems. Mountain breeds must be strong, hardy sheep and, usually, need to be frugal in their feed requirements as well. They were developed from original stock that was essentially triple-purpose sheep of the mixed wool type, but with the loss of a market for wool the owners have had to depend upon meat and milk production for almost all income derived from sheep.

Column 5 of the Table 3 shows the present use of each breed. It is notable how few of the breeds are valued for wool production. The price of wool fell by about 50 percent from 1964–1967, with calamitous effects for the owners of sheep used for wool production, including the old, triple-purpose breeds. That the market for wool did not recover during the remainder of the 1960's and the early 1970's was a major factor in the decline (by crossing or displacement) of the minor breeds of triple-purpose sheep. Thus, the surviving breeds from which income used to be derived about equally from milk, meat and wool (e.g. varieties of the Zackel on the Greek mainland) are now, in fact, single - or dual-purpose milk and/or meat breeds.

The income received from the sale of dairy and meat products of the old, native breeds is relatively low, and the mountain breeds would be displaced by the more specialized breeds if the climate and terrain were less demanding. As the owners of the mountain breeds perceive their situation, their need is for crossbreds which are competitive with the better meat and dairy animals and which retain the hardiness requisite to the mountain environment. In their view, if the flocks do not attain these characteristics sheep husbandry will be abandoned. To date, efforts to cross the old breeds with imported high-yielding varieties have usually resulted in loss of hardiness or of some other characteristic essential to the survival of the sheep in the mountain environment.

Flock movement and breed status

For the Mediterranean region as a whole, 59 percent (13 of 22) of the transhumant breeds were endangered or vulnerable, and 71 percent (10 of 14) of the sedentary breeds were so classified. In France and Italy, as shown above, 12 of the 14 transhumant breeds surveyed were either Status I or II; in Greece only one (of six) transhumant breeds was threatened. However, all five of the wholly sedentary breeds surveyed in Greece (three of the island breeds and two mainland breeds) were either endangered or vulnerable. Again, the difference is accounted for by the nature and geographical pattern of the economic changes which have taken place in these countries.

The “Shepherd Problem”

Almost everywhere during the survey, we were told about the serious problems that confront sheep owners in regard to shepherds: that there was a growing shortage of persons who were qualified and willing to tend the sheep, and that the cost of labour for sheep herding, milking, etc. had increased to a level that the owners considered excessively high. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the shortage will become more acute in the near future. Shepherds by and large today are middle-aged or older, and those that retire are often not replaced.

Cultural and social values are as much a part of the “problem” as economic considerations. It is not only a matter of the motivation of the young people in the rural areas, most of whom today are attracted to other occupations, but there is also strong pressure by the parents for them to find a more prestigious job. “Our children will not be shepherds”, we were told.

Should declining breeds be preserved?

The arguments for the conservation of breeds have been made by BOWMAN and AINDOW (1973), FAO (1966, 1968), JEWELL (1971), LAUVERGNE (1975), MASON (1974), RYDER (1976), SANCHEZ BELDA (1974), and other, and may be summarized as follows:

  1. Each breed represents a unique complex of genetic material - a resource that is lost if the breed becomes extinct.

  2. Genetic characteristics that today are of little economic value, or unrecognized, may be important in the future. The survey found that there are basic characteristics of the common and the minor breeds that are not known, such as feed and growth efficiency, natural immunities, longevity, and behaviour. The old, unimproved breeds have the greatest range of gene frequency, a wide variety of transmittable characteristics that provide flexibility for artificial selection and the genetic diversity needed to obtain hybrid vigour.

  3. Scientific studies of living breeds of livestock enhance our knowledge in many fields of enquiry, including the evolution and domestication of animals, toxicological and immunological aspects of blood chemistry, genetically related diseases, and, of course, biological processes of wool growth, and meat and milk production.

  4. Breeds of livestock are of educational value (and may also have aesthetic merit in a world that is increasingly urban). Old breeds, which have long been part of the cultural landscape provide a means by which present and future generations may gain insight to the historical geography of the areas where the breeds survive.

Ecological effects of the decline of breeds

The ecological changes that follow the demise of breeds are mostly unknown. The present study found that there were unwanted changes in some areas where sheep have grossly declined.

The structure and composition of vegetation that has been conditioned for decades by the seasonal presence of large numbers of livestock will be altered if no longer grazed. A substantial reduction in grazing pressure enables some species of plants to proliferate at the expense of others. Likewise, vegetational changes will be induced by the introduction of a new species or breed with a different feeding behaviour, which may include a preference for other kinds of forbs and grasses than were previously ingested.

In the central Pyrenees of France, where transhumance has greatly declined, it was found during the survey that rhododendron and wild berries cover areas that formerly supported grasses when large numbers of sheep were brought to graze there each summer (see p. 10, Castillon).

In the Italian Alps of Udine Province, sheep numbers have decreased during the past forty years to a few thousand head, and there has been a significant increase in the annual number of forest fires. The ground cover of grass on the forested slopes of the mountains used to be grazed early and late in the summer by the flocks of transhumant breeds. Now the grass that formerly was consumed by sheep grows to maturity and is usually tinder-dry late in the summer.

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