Some of Ireland’s rarest breeds of farm animals could undergo a “renaissance” under proposals to revive their critically endangered herds.
A report by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and Fingal County Council identifies 20 native breeds of horse, cow, sheep, pig and fowl of immediate conservation concern.
Little reliable information is available on some of them, such as the Bilberry goat, the Greyhound pig and the Tory cow, which may all be extinct.
Others, such as the Kerry bog pony and the Moiled cattle, have just hundreds of specimens.
Most were common in Irish farms up to the 1950s when intensive agricultural practices began to take over, radically changing the nature of small holdings.
The report calls for the immediate appointment of a full-time secretariat to coordinate the development of a national rare breeds strategy.
It also recommends the establishment of an ‘Irish Centre for Genetic Conservation and Research’ with specialist genetics labs to revive struggling breeds and protect existing herds.
It says Newbridge Demense in north County Dublin, and Connemara National Park, should become specialist centres for the project.
Its authors warn that native rare breeds are “in a perilous state” but adds: “There are identifiable accomplishments that suggest an Irish rare breed renaissance is possible.”
A number of largely voluntary rare breed societies have been working to raise awareness of individual breeds and in some recent cases, their efforts have paid off.
The ‘Old Irish’ goat, distinguished by its rugged appearance and multitude of coat colours, thrived up to the early 1900s when there were 250,000 of them but numbers plummeted in the following decades.
The introduction of 25 animals from the small surviving herd in Mayo to Howth Head in Co Dublin in 2021 is helping to boost the population after a century of neglect.
Another success story is the Cladoir sheep, thought to be extinct, which was rediscovered through genetic testing of isolated flocks in 2020.
The small breed was once common in Connemara where it was often found eating seaweed, and it was kept mainly for its wool as it produced little meat so it was let dwindle in favour of bigger breeds.
Minister Darragh O’Brien this week presented seven of the sheep, from a flock assembled in Connemara National Park, to Newbridge Demense, a heritage house and farm in north Co Dublin which has a collection of native Irish breeds for the public to visit.
“The importance of these Irish heritage breeds spans well beyond science and agriculture,” Mr O’Brien said.
“They are part of Ireland’s rich history, culture and folklore and I am committed to working together to protect that heritage.”
Fingal County Council and the NPWS are proposing that Newbridge Demense and Connemara National Park become “living heritage centres” for rare breeds rejuvenation projects.
The report recommends short-term measures including establishing a Cladoir Sheep walk and Connemara Pony trail at Connemara National Park.
The cost of the trails, drawing up action plans for Connemara and Newbridge, running a rare breeds secretariat for three years and drawing up a long-term strategy are put at just over €1 million.