The Henson name and rare breeds have been associated with one another since 1973, when my father Joe founded and chaired the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), a charity which continues to do fantastic work today.
My father’s passion for native and rare UK farm animals had begun long before then, but ’73 was the turning point. Up until then, breeds were becoming extinct like they were going out of fashion…which actually sums the situation up quite well. We had lost 26 native British farm breeds since the turn of the century. Methods of food production were changing and farming was becoming more intensive. As a result, more commercial breeds were very much in demand, whilst others – such as Limestone sheep and Suffolk Dun cattle – sadly fell out of favour to the point where they were wiped out completely.
The RBST has worked wonders and we haven’t lost a single native UK farming breed since it was established. They also have a gene bank, which – if needed – could help to save breeds from the point of extinction. This work is also very forward-thinking; the needs of consumers (and therefore farmers) are constantly changing. It’s vital that we have a pool of genetic material to fall back on, which is another reason why conserving rare breeds is so important.
Following in my dad’s footsteps, I now run Cotswold Farm Park, the rare breeds centre he set up two years prior to the creation of the RBST. It’s changed almost beyond recognition since the early days, when my mum used to serve ice creams out of a caravan! At its core though, our mission remains the same. We want to give people the opportunity to see the full picture of British farming – from our ancient White Park cattle and Soay sheep, right up to the more familiar-looking commercial animals.
Although some of the older breeds may not be as viable to the modern farmer, it would be a tragedy to lose them forever. Just like historic buildings which are now protected by law, these animals have helped to shape the British landscape over the years. They are our living heritage.
Cotswold Farm Park
See Adam Henson at Cheltenham Science Festival
As UK farming has become more intensive, many breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry – seen as unsuited to modern farming techniques – have become increasingly rare. Is this a change for the best? Rural television presenter and farmer Adam Henson and rare breed experts Tom Beeston and Vaughan Byrne discuss the pros and cons of some of the UK’s most endangered livestock breeds.