Living masterpieces

Preserving Dutch ancient cattle breeds

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Our western food production needed to scale up right after the second world war. We would never experience hunger again. In the meantime, the relationship we had with agriculture-animals started to change. The animals that were part of shaping our civilization disappeared from our living environment. Some figuratively -put away in barns- others literally -a number of breeds got put aside and went extinct.  

The modern food industry has mostly focussed on a range of super productive -but genetically weak- cattle breeds. The original breeds that shaped the basis of our civilization got more and more rare. Today, a lot of them are endangered.

The Netherlands counts in total of a few hundred kinds of rare cattle breeds. Out of the 144 breeds, 90% are considered as ‘critical’, ‘threatened’ or ‘‘vulnerable’. This makes an amount of 50 purebreds left of the 'Dutch landrace Pig', 20 'Dutch landrace ducks', 450 'Frisian red cows', 50 'baardkuif' chickens and a few more than 1000 'Veluwse heide' sheeps. In some cases it seems like a lot, but genetically it’s almost impossible to ever sustain a healthy population again.

Scientists and experts are warning us of the danger that the lack of genetic variations entails. Especially in the long term. They argue that the original breeds should not only be preserved from a cultural and historical perspective, but mainly because of the genetic information that these breeds are carrying with themselves. 

The honeybee is not often referred to as an agricultural breed. Yet the animal serves as an important role in our food supply. It shows that the problematic situation in which the animal finds itself, demonstrates how important it is to protect the genetic variation within our cattle and food production.

 

The Netherlands only native Bee species, the 'Black Bee' (Apis mellifera mellifera) has almost completely disappeared from our country in its pure form. At the beginning of the last century, many beekeepers increasingly opted for a highly productive breed to keep; that became the 'Buckfast Bee'(Apis mellifera). A hybride type of Bee that produces a lot of honey and was more easy to handle. 

 

Nowadays people are starting to appreciate the Black Bee more and more. Unlike the highly productive Buckfast bee, the Black Bee has managed to develop without any human interference. Because it never got selected for commercial use, the species is more resilient to diseases and parasites. The species is also well adapted to our local climate. They anticipate on the fluctuations of our climate (which we will experience more often). The species also flies within colder, wetter and windier weather and holds larger supplies of food for hard times. The help from beekeepers for the additional feeding is not necessary, in the case of a low food supply the Queen simply lays less eggs to make sure there is enough food for the whole family. 

Photo above : Mathijs Herremans works on a healthy population of `Black Bee's in the Netherlands. 

Dutch farmer Evert has been farming for more than 30 years in the Islandpolder (before Schermereylandt). Farmer Evert mixes all of his livestock with rare breeds, mainly the Blaarkop (Blisterhead) and the Frisian Dutch breed. With the use of these ancient genetics he manages to breed  animals that thrive on natural grassland. The genetic material of the ancient breeds ensure him that his cows do not grow too big (so that they will fit in the boat), and makes sure they maintain healthy hooves in the moist grass so they can graze in the nearby nature reserve. The animals are an important 'ingrediënt' of  the ancient dutch grasslands, which is full of old grasses, herbs, insects and has been an excellent nesting place for many birds for over hundereds of years. All that time, the landscape was shaped by the early farmers and their herds. 

For many centuries, field chapels have been on places where our ancestors knelt to pray and ask God's blessing for themselves, their children, their cattle and their fruits of the field. They are a symbol of hope and trust in God, many believed our ancestors spoke to us through these field chapels. Humanity deprived fields of wild nature and prayed Mother Earth to produce the fruits they needed to live and blessed the cattle that made us who we are . (from Veldkapellen en wegkruisen, 1985, Theelen, Jacques)

Between 1945 and 1965 the arrival of the tractor caused a huge turn in the countryside. The path of motorization, scaling up and specialization did definitely took its own turn. With the increase of the tractors, there was automatically a decrease in the number of draught horses. In 1946 the farmers still had a post-war record of 266,00 horses in their stables, since then the numbers have been systematically decreasing. By now the draught horse is an endangered breed.

In 1962 the Dutch pig population consisted almost entirely of the Dutch Landrace Pig and the Great Yorkshire pig. After crossbreeding was introduced in The Netherlands, breeders focussed on a highly productiviteit type of pig . In the past, it was normal for a pig to have 8 or 10 piglets every year. Today we have pigs that have nests up to 24 piglets, twice a year. From an economical point of view, the Dutch landrace was no longer interesting to breed and because of that they almost went instinct. In 2014 there were only two purebred male landrace  pigs left.

In the last 200 years the domestic goat has played a very important role in Dutch society. As a cheaper alternative for the cow, the domestic goat, especially in the countryside, often provided poor families with milk, cheese and sometimes a piece of meat. Nevertheless, the breed has practically gone extinct during the rise of intensive farming. Due to the joint efforts of various zoo's, government institutions, and animal lovers, the breed still exists today. The characteristics of this ancient Dutch breed can be of great use to us in the future. 

It’s not only that the breeds are threatened, their keepers are also becoming rarer. The commitment of the keepers is entirely voluntarily. It is up to them to preserve our living heritage. But  with much increasing legislation it becomes more difficult for them to keep these animals. 

Breeders and keepers of rare breeds are the ones who ensure that these animals can still be admired in real life. For hundreds of years, these "treasure keepers" have been committed to passing on these genes, and therefore look over our food safety. It would be very sad if in the future their work could only be viewed at events and in museums.

Small-scale farmers with closed circuit; animals of ancient breeds fit there perfectly. Many holders have become convinced that these breeds are best preserved when the animals can be used within an economic function. There have been "bonte melkgeiten' (black/white milk goats) for hundreds of years on the small-scale farm Brömmels in the east of The Netherlands. The sustainable breed fits well with the Nature-inclusive agriculture of the farm. Nothing is wasted, both the cheese and meat are eagerly purchased in the farm shop. The farm also supplies products to local entrepreneurs.

Thousands of plant and animal species are directly or indirectly dependent on grazers. They evolved together with natural grazing. They have adapted to the grazing patterns of grazers, their manure, or the grazers themselves (predators, parasites). In this way they have conquered their natural place in the Dutch landscape. After the war, the food industry could and had to increase, nowadays most agriculture-animals are stored in stables. Machines and fertilizer took over the work of the grazers. Yet this development is starting to turn around, the people are slowly switching back to a more sustainable way of food prossecing and nature management.

© Sabine Grootendorst, 2020