Genetic diversity in farm animals, and why it matters

Part of Sheepspot's mission is to support farmers who raise rare sheep breeds. My passion for these breeds, and for the wool they produce, began in a handspinning class with Deb Robson, co-author with Carol Ekarius, of The Fleece and Fiber Source Book, on spinning rare wools. I say it was a spinning class, but for me it was a lot more than that. It was my first introduction to what spinners call "breed study," the more or less systematic inquiry into both the characteristics of wools produced by specific breeds and how best to spin them. I had only been spinning for eighteen months or so when I took Deb's class, and my spinning education thus far had been quite limited. The class was eye-opening in showing me the sheer diversity of wool in the world, and how much I loved All Of It. Over the three days, we spun fine wools like Merino and Cormo, long wools like Border Leicester and Coopworth, Down breeds like Suffolk and Dorset, double-coated breeds like Shetland and Icelandic, and primitive breeds like Soay.

More than learning that I really, really love All The Wool, though, I learned how much of it is in real danger of disappearing. I learned about how seriously many of the breeds I enjoyed spinning the most in class, like Jacob and Black Welsh Mountain, are under threat. As I pursued my breed study in subsequent months, on my own and with some of the spinners who listened to my podcast, SpinDoctor, I gathered and spun more rare breeds, both from North American and from Britain.  I made gorgeous yarns from the wools of Gulf Coast Native (currently listed as critical by the Livestock Conservancy), North Ronaldsay and Castlemilk Morritt (of which there are fewer than a thousand animals, according to Britain's Rare Breeds Survival Trust). I came to appreciate the soft bounciness of Romeldale, and the silky strength of Leicester Longwool.

In the process, I learned that there is a wool for practically every purpose that I, as a knitter, can think of. There are soft wools for cozy cowls and baby blankets and strong wools for carpets that can last for generations. And just about everything in between: sturdy wools for sweaters and bouncy wools for socks. That range is what we stand to lose if we lose these breeds.

You may be wondering if there's more at stake than some spinner's and knitter's pleasure in her hobbies. Merino's fine, right? There's plenty of that, isn't there?

Here's where the story gets a bit scarier, at least to me as a lover of wool. I'm no biologist (there's an understatement, and if I've gotten any of this wrong, please let me know), but I've been doing a little research.  As I understand it, genetic diversity is what allows a species (like, say, ovis aries, otherwise know as sheep) to adapt to changes in its environment. When something happens in the world of a given species that threatens its survival, its capacity to adapt depends on the presence of variable traits within its population, traits that can help it live under the new conditions. Genetic diversity is the raw material that produces those variations. In other words, we need the genetic diversity provided by as many breeds as possible to ensure that sheep as a species continue to thrive in the face of climate change, disease, and other threats.

In the graphic below, I list some of the other reasons why genetic diversity matters, not just for sheep, but for all farm animals. Next time, I'll discuss some of the threats to genetic diversity in livestock.

Look, ma! I made an infographic!