This year, I took a month-long summer holiday. It was mostly free from work obligations, but I couldn’t help always being aware of things that relate to this project on reintroduction and belonging. Several times over the course of my holiday I encountered efforts to preserve regional domestic breeds of animals. In each case, there was a concerted effort to identify the animal breed as belonging to a particular place, with the implication that the place would be diminished without it.
Take the Poitou donkey. At the Ménagerie in Paris (which is the historic zoo in town), two Poitou donkeys were on display. The very shaggy donkeys seemed content munching hay, but they must have been quite hot in the scorching summer heat of 35C+. According to the sign, the breed appeared in the Middle Ages, making it the oldest donkey type in France. Mechanisation of agriculture and the armed forces (which had both used donkeys) led to a rapid decrease in the number of Poitou donkeys. In 1977, there were no more than 44 individuals of the breed. “It was urgent to do everything possible to save the breed,” declared the sign. Because of directed breeding efforts there are now “more than 400 of these pure bred donkeys throughout the world.”
Here was an example of a domestic breed without a purpose. This type of donkey had been bred—physically shaped by the work of humans—to do certain tasks and those tasks were no longer needed. Yet, there was a desire to “save” the breed from extinction. Why? It wasn’t because the donkeys would do what they had done (after all, these are in a zoo not doing work at all). It appears that it was because the donkey represented heritage, specifically heritage of a place. This wasn’t just any old donkey—it was the Poitou donkey from the region of Poitou.
Or take the Breton horse. We saw some Bretons at the French National Stud Farm in Lamballe, Brittany. The Breton is a huge, stocky horse bred to plow the fields of Brittany. The Breton was created through a long history of breeding going back thousands of years. In 1909, a studbook was created for the Breton in order to create a register of ‘pure’ Breton bloodlines, and the book was officially closed in 1951. That means that the Breton has been strictly defined and delineated. The parents of a horse are either in this book or the horse isn’t a Breton.
But more than that, to be registered as a Breton, the foal must be born in Brittany or Loire-Atlantique (formerly part of Brittany). The place is integral to the definition of the breed. The Breton belongs in Brittany (and only there).
Or what about the Lapp goat? This goat has been bred by the indigenous Sami people living in northern Sweden and Norway. The animal park at Mickelbo Gård in Mickelträsk, Sweden, has a small herd of them. The goat is considered “an endangered Swedish native breed” so a genetic register has been started. In 2008, there were only 65 animals on the list, although by the end of 2012, 176 animals were listed. The Mickelbo herd had one small kid, so maybe the numbers are increasing. Like the Poitou donkey, the Lapp goat’s niche has led to its downfall. It accompanied the Sami reindeer herders during the summer months to provide milk for the herders. Although there are still reindeer herders, modern transportation systems as well as refrigeration create less need for a milk provider on the hoof. And yet there are people interested in keeping the breed alive, presumably as a cultural heritage object representing the north and the Sami.
Put together these examples show how much interest there is in preserving particular animals that belong to particular places. These domestic breeds are not ‘natural’ — they are the product of thousands of years of breeding efforts and their ancestors came from far away from where the animals now live. Yet, these breeds belong and are understood as a ‘natural’ part of the cultural landscape. Extraordinary efforts have been made to record the surviving ‘pure bred’ stock and encourage them to produce offspring.
While we often talk about species extinction in the case of wild species, the extinction of breeds is the concern with domestic species. There is no danger that domestic donkeys (Equus asinus) or horses (Equus ferus caballus) or goats (Capra hircus) will go extinct, but specific breeds may indeed disappear. And because those breeds are often associated with particular places, those places may become less.
I will close with one final thought. Some domestic breeds just look right in a particular landscape, and the landscape looks right with them. I knew this was true when I saw this Fjord horse on a Norwegian farm along the fjords.