Monday, 7 June 2010

Royal Bath & West Show

This weekend I spent two tiring days at the Royal Bath & West Show south of Bristol. This is the largest agricultural show still running in the UK, and has been in operation since 1777. I went down to help out at the Severn Counties stand, but I took along a small collection of my own animals to show the public – mostly invertebrates of various kinds, but also lizards and snakes. Judging by the responses I got, the visitors were mostly very interested.

Exhibitors have to get down to the show grounds early, which means you see some sights that you won’t get otherwise, like seeing a Highland Cow getting its coat combed and blow dried in preparation for the show ring, and helping carry a 50kg African Spur-Thighed tortoise up a flight of stairs to the British Chelonia Group stand.

The show is run by the Royal Bath & West of England Society, which owns the show ground and rents it out for a variety of events during the year. If a UK reader has not visited, can I recommend that you do next year – it is a great day out for every farmer, show jumper, cheese producer, or any other rural industry in that part of the world.

The Society was founded as part of a general move in the late 18th century to improve the standards of agriculture, promote useful inventions, and provide improved standards for working people – in 1801 a prize was offered for the landowner who could show that he had built ‘the greatest number of cheap durable and comfortable cottages, in proportion to the extent of his estate, for poor industrious labourers to inhabit and who shall annex a portion of land not less than ¼ of an acre to each cottage.'

Among the livestock on show are a variety of breeds both modern and traditional, and in this post I would like to write about how they came to be created. The picture at the head of this post is of one of the breeds on show, the rather peculiar looking ‘Jacob’s Sheep’. This is a good one to examine, as in legend at least it goes back to the very first attempts at genetic engineering, which, as with a lot of human activities, started a lot earlier than you may think. Consider this episode from the life of Jacob in Genesis 30:

(Jacob has been working for his father in law Laban, and wants paying. They agree that any spotted or speckled animals in their flocks will belong to Jacob)

“That same day Laban removed all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the spotted or speckled female goats (all that had white on them) and all the dark-coloured lamb, and he placed them in the care of his sons. Then he put a three-day journey between himself and Jacob, while Jacob continued to tend the rest of Laban’s flocks.

Jacob however took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Whenever the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would place the branches in the troughs so they would mate near the branches. So the weak animals went to Laban and the strong ones to Jacob.”

OK, I concede that this sympathetic magic would not work in reality, but the story shows that the idea of intentionally manipulating the appearance (what these days is called the phenotype) of an animal by deliberate “technological” means existed even in the Bronze Age – it is just that only recently have people been able to do it effectively.

The development of the oldest breeds was not however so dramatic. Transporting live animals long distances has always been expensive, and so in a given area the local cattle and sheep tended to be related to each other. In this way local colour varieties and physical features developed, forming what are called ‘landraces’. Only in a few high prestige animals such as horses were specific breeds developed for particular purposes – peasant farmers did not have sufficient control over their stock to do more than pick the healthiest animals to survive,

In the 18th century however, there was a move to increased control over agriculture by landowners. Part of this was due to an increase in population in the UK, with increased demand and a need for more productive farms. Robert Bakewell crossed different breeds of sheep to select their best characteristics. His experiments in selective breeding of sheep produced the Dishley, or New Leicester breed in 1755. Bakewell also experimented with breeds of cattle. In 1769, he produced the Longhorn; a breed that was a good meat producer but gave a poor milk yield. Bakewell was also the first to hire his animals out for stud. His farm became a model of scientific management. Thomas Coke, farming in Norfolk, used similar methods to Bakewell's to produce breeds such as the Southdown sheep, Devon cattle and Suffolk pigs.

One of the leading lights of this stock improvement movement was none other than George III, whose passion for agriculture led to him being nicknamed “Farmer George” before his tragic illness (probably porphyria) led to the mental instability which he most famous for these days. I am not certain, but it is probable that Farmer George was the first Royal Patron of the Bath & West – the society was certainly founded during his reign.

It is at this point that Jacob’s sheep enter the picture. Whatever their actual origins, by the 1750’s a flock had been imported from Spain and they became popular ornamental sheep on landowners fields. In 1974 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was formed and reported that the breed was 'the success story of recent years' with over 5000 registered sheep in the flock book; 'the progress of the Jacob in the last two or three years provides a blueprint for the conservation and development of other rare breeds' it added.

Although today most livestock has been much modified by selective breeding, these older breeds of livestock are still important. They are used as sources of genetic variation in modern breed development (most modern breeds are highly inbred). They are also often a better choice for hobby farmers, as whereas modern breeds have been selected for maximum productivity as long as all conditions are ideal, older breeds are mostly designed for maximum health and lifespan while looked for by a medieval peasant, and are therefore much lower on veterinary bills. They are also often used in grazing management of protected grassland and nature reserves, as they do better under such conditions than modern breeds.


Royal Bath & West of England Society:
Jacob Sheep Society:
Rare Breeds Survival Trust:

(image from wikipedia)

1 comment:

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