National Ecology

A wake-up call from the farmyard

Almost three-quarters of Spain's indigenous animal breeds face extinction

A shepherd with his flock of Blanca Celtibérica goats in Castellón province.
A shepherd with his flock of Blanca Celtibérica goats in Castellón province. Ángel Sánchez

A month ago, Zakri Abdul Hamid, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), was in Trondheim, Norway to warn about the negative consequences for human welfare of the loss of biodiversity among farm animals and crops. Speaking to a gathering of 450 international officials with government responsibilities in biodiversity and economic planning, Zakri said "the rate of decline is dropping, but the latest data classify 22 percent of domesticated breeds at risk of extinction."

But the rate is far higher than that in Spain. According to figures from the Agriculture, Food and Environment Ministry, of the 184 breeds on the official catalogue, 128 (representing 70 percent of the total) are at risk of extinction. And this rate rises to 82 percent if only indigenous breeds are taken into account.

IPBES is modeled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but with a focus on conservation and biodiversity protection. Like the IPCC, it publishes reports on the effects of biodiversity loss on ecosystems and human development. This international body holds that the causes of genetic erosion in domesticated animals are a "lack of appreciation of the value of indigenous breeds and their importance in niche adaptation, incentives to introduce exotic and more uniform breeds from industrialized countries, and product-focused selection."

The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) talks about a risk of extinction when a breed has a maximum of 1,000 reproductive females or a maximum of 20 reproductive males. In Spain, there are 19 avian breeds in this situation, including all of the indigenous ones save one; 14 horse breeds (again, all the native species save one), six donkey breeds, nine swine breeds, 15 goat breeds, 33 sheep breeds and, last but not least, the Canary Island camel.

This genetic pool is indispensable for their ability to adapt to different climates"

Even FAO has its own international strategy to help curb the loss of farm animal biodiversity. Meanwhile, in Spain both the central government and regional authorities have had specific legislation for years to try to preserve native breeds through subsidies and other initiatives.

Yet the loss of diversity continues to grow. Two years ago, there were 110 at-risk species in Spain, compared with 128 now. Breeds that have already gone extinct include the pig varieties Chato Vitoriano, Celta Alistano and Lermeño, the Jurdana goat, and cow breeds such as Mantequera Leonesa.

Manuel Luque, managing director of the Spanish Federation of Select Livestock Associations (Feagas), warns about another breed in critical condition: the Iberian spotted pig from Jabugo - a world-famous production center of top-quality cured ham - which had no more than 51 specimens in December 2012. Feagas works in partnership with Global Nature and the Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente Foundation to try to recover this genetic and cultural heritage. The latest step by the Agriculture Ministry was the issuing of a royal decree regulating the use of the logo Raza Autóctona 100%, which will allow consumers to know which animal products were obtained from native species.

Luque underscores the importance of maintaining genetic diversity through indigenous breeds. "These might not represent a major commercial production, but their genetic pool is indispensable because it contributes the ability to adapt to climates and places where other breeds would not survive, as well as resistance to diseases that could become epidemic." Luque wants recognition not just for "romantic breeders" who keep these animals alive despite their low profitability, but also for those who "breed and tend goats like the Blanca Celtibérica in the mountain range of Sierra de Gádor (Almería) or the Lojeña sheep in Loja (Granada), both of which are at risk.

Luque notes that these animals survive in environments where no other breed could, due to the climate conditions and available vegetation. "If they lost their livestock, there would be no other breed to replace them."

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