Why the SPPA Is Needed

by Craig Russell

A slightly edited version of the 1998 APA Yearbook article entitled "We Must Maintain Poultry's Heritage."


Livestock conservation is important for historic, cultural, genetic, and economic reasons.

It has often been said there is no culture without agriculture. Nor can it be denied that agriculture has been and will continue to be the primary cause of civilization. As civilization has become increasingly complex, agriculture has changed greatly. Both horticulture and livestock keeping have been altered in terms of methods and materials.

As regards livestock, one of the oldest classes, poultry, has become increasingly important in the modern era. This is due to both a high reproductive potential and relatively rapid production of product. In response to a growing population, poultry has increased in absolute numbers, production, and as a percentage of the diet. These changes have been global; but in the more technological societies, poultry production has become increasingly industrial in nature. Industrial poultry husbandry is characterized not only by intensive, large scale production, but by manipulation and extensive control of the fowls' environment. Traditional agriculture has tended to fit organisms to a specific environment. Reversing this procedure allowed selection to be concentrated on production values. Industrial agriculture also places a high premium on uniformity. This is one of several factors that has led to an increase in the total number of fowl and a decrease in the genetic variability of poultry.

Industrial poultry production is a very new phase of agriculture, but industrial stocks are already very close to being monotypic. Despite incredible current production, such stocks are not well positioned to adapt to changing conditions and, of course, potentially very vulnerable to correctly adapted pathogens. This vulnerability is heightened by the crowding inherent in industrial style production and by some climate control measures.

This situation is one of the most pressing arguments for the preservation of genetic diversity in poultry. A failure to act now could have serious biological, economic. and even cultural repercussions. Trends indicate that current pressures will probably escalate.

Past attempts at preservation have not been entirely successful; and despite improved present conditions, much remains to be done.

While there is considerable overlap, poultry stocks basically can be divided into seven categories.

Industrial--These stocks are characterized by adaptation for intensive production. Pure (although often non-standard) parent and grandparent flocks are maintained, but actual production birds are hybrids and strain crosses. Such meat stocks are now mostly hybrid (turkeys would be an exception) as are most brown egg producers. White egg producers are strain crossed White Leghorns. Meat types have shown incredible increases in rate of gain and an extremely early development of a usable carcass. Industrial egg production has shown significant improvement of production but has concentrated on the mechanization of feeding, watering, and egg collecting and processing.

Traditional Agricultural--As exemplified by the diversified farm, [which] was, and what remains of it is, mostly dominated by "modern" composite breeds (developed by selection; in most cases since 1859, dual purpose breeds are typical). Specialized meat and egg producers in such use were often historic types that had been selected for more intensive production. Hybrids that were precursors of the modern industrial types were also popular.

Reds, Rocks, Wyandottes, Sussex, and Orpingtons are typical of composite dual purpose fowl in this category. Prior to 1900 and in many areas well into the early part of this century, early composite breeds, such as Dominiques, Houdans, Faverolles, and the traditional historic breeds, were common. Early meat types included historic Asiatic fowl such as Cochins and Brahmas and early hybrids such as Malay-Dorking and Indian Game-Dorking crosses. Later Cornish-Rock crosses were popular. Operations concentrating on egg production utilized a variety of light breeds. Over time, the Mediterranean group predominated. Leghorns, Anconas, and Minorcas are all good examples. Crosses of these such as Leg-Minorcas and Min-legs, were also popular.

Lamonas, Hollands, Delawares, and others are good examples of recent developments in the traditional agricultural area. These were breeds developed to fill special niches such as white egg laying dual purpose breeds or parent stocks for sex linked hybrids or both.

Historical--These stocks include original types, land races, and ancestral types. They can be characterized as hardy and self-reliant, able to thrive with a minimum of care. Natural reproduction is a strong point. Those unfamiliar with them wrongly dismiss them as non-productive. In fact, they are the base on which the poultry industry was founded; and while they tend to do poorly under crowded conditions and in some cases develop slowly, they often do far better without intense manipulation than would be possible with later types. Dorkings are typical of dual purpose breeds of this type. Old English Games often performed similar service and Malays, Shamos, Cochins, and Brahmas are examples of meat types. Hamburgs, Campines, Buttercups, Fayoumis, Andalusians, Leghorns, and Minorcas are examples of egg breeds.

Games--Mostly historic types and crosses of such types, these fowl are maintained for sport. Cockfighting was once our national sport and is still among the most popular sporting activities in the world.

Ornamentals--Until recently, nearly all fowl were to some degree ornamental as well as practical. Fowls were selected for their symmetry of form and beauty of plumage as well as rate of growth and length of lay. But this division is most properly populated by those races that were developed intentionally for ornamentation, such as the Sultans from the gardens of Turkish nobility and Japanese long and medium tails, as well as most early bantams, particularly those sparkling little gems from the orient and the low countries.

Exhibition--This section encompasses the historical breeds, the games, the ornamentals, and the pure breeds from traditional agriculture. As little as 50 years ago the most important segment of exhibition poultry was commercial in nature. Breeding farms and hatcheries met in the showroom to display their wares, often facing strong competition from farmers, small breeders, and hobbyists as well. With the showroom's understandable emphasis on fancy points, shows have often been blamed with having ruined more breeds than they have perfected. And it cannot be denied that the show system has transformed some breeds, the Asiatics are a good example, from utility fowl to ornamentals. (Utility strains of Brahmas, particularly the Lights, still exist but would not be competitive for top prizes at a major show.) Also, some judges tend to entirely disregard production qualities for mere appearance; but the exhibition system has done a great deal to maintain breed character. In addition, it can be easily demonstrated that standard recognition is a positive factor in helping to assure breed and variety survival. Then too, exhibition fowl often retain characteristics that have been lost by fowl in other sectors.

Experimental--[P]oultry maintained by teaching and research institutions. Such stocks have contributed to our understanding of genetics and greatly expanded production qualities. They have also produced important biomedical breakthroughs and have important future potentials in that field. Such stocks are drawn from all sectors.

In an ideal world, all of those affiliated with these various poultry types would combine to assure the maximum possible survival of genetic diversity in the poultry world.

However, in the real world, industrial concerns are preoccupied with making a profit and are faced with narrowing margins. It is interesting to note that more than 90% of commercial turkey production is now controlled by just three companies worldwide. One of these, British Turkeys Ltd., actually maintains flocks of old farm varieties but this is the exception not the rule and how long it will continue is uncertain. Traditional agriculture is a shrinking segment of commercial production that has largely gone over to buying their stock from hatcheries and no longer maintain breeder flocks. In areas of the world where subsistence and traditional agriculture maintains historic types, it is often only apparent that such stocks are in danger after they have been lost or adulterated.

At one time, experimental stocks were considered important genetic reserves but institutional flocks have not been stable. Changes in staff have often led to complete changes in the types being worked with. In recent years I know of several cases in which important collections of old fashioned farm turkeys have been simply terminated by the universities that had formerly kept them. And similar cases can be recounted with other poultry stocks.

Here and there various individuals have suggested that this is a job that should be handled by government. In Japan and elsewhere governments have been active in poultry genetic conservation. But anyone who seriously believes that governments will be more stable than institutions and can be trusted to maintain a long term agenda for the preservation of poultry probably has been abusing controlled substances.

In short, poultry conservation by default becomes the responsibility of the fanciers who maintain traditional, historic, game, and ornamental types.

Let's get with it.

Very clearly, the historic breeds are the lynch pin of any coherent poultry conservation program. These are the building blocks with which the composite breeds and the entire modern poultry industry were constructed.

If you aren't keeping members of this group now, consider adding at least one to your flock.

Most importantly, support poultry conservation efforts so we don't lose any of that wonderful poultry heritage.


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