Sunday 11 March 2012

Crofters seeds and breeds.

Strathpeffer hosted an international conference arranged by the Scottish Crofters Federation this weekend ( 9th - 11th march ) "A Celebration of Crofters Seed and Breeds". One hundred and fifty delegates from 16 countries participated. This was the latest in a series of annual meetings first held in Poitiers, France in 2005. Why?....well the genetic diversity of crofters and farmers animals and crops is being degraded and endangered in a number of ways.

French delegate and shepherd from Provence, Jean Louis, a representative of the French Confederation Paysanne, told the Conference how centralised, government controlled sheep breeding for high production has compromised the immunity of his Lacaune breed of sheep. Delegates from Latvia told reported that a farmer who has specialised in producing and selling old and heritage varieties of crops and vegetables is being prosecuted for contravening EU legislation whereby only varieties which appear on the EU register of seeds can be traded.  The implication is that the EU in conjunction with multinational corporations is trying to take total control of the genetics of farm crops.
Jean Louis - Provencal Shepherd

For the last twenty years Mary and Tommy Isbister, Crofters from Shetland have been conserving local breeds. Shetland ducks which were on the verge of extinction when they started. Now on their croft at Burland on the island of Tronda they have a true breeding flock of these glossy black ducks with white bibs that lay a good number of medium sized white eggs from April to September. The Isbisters have also been active in saving the Shetland goose, the Shetland hen and the the Shetland cow.

We don't just have rare breeds of animals in the crofting counties. We have a number of primitive "landraces" of cereals; Bere barley, Small oat, Hebridean rye and Shetland kale. The Scottish Government is keen to preserve these landraces so if you know anyone who grows Bere barley, small oat, rye, kale and turnips from their own saved seed, the Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme would like to know about it.

These  "heritage" breeds of animals and landrace crops are important because they contain a large amount of genetic variation while modern selectively bred animals and plants have a narrower genetic makeup which could make them suddenly susceptible to diseases,  pests.  or changes in the environment, they also need large amounts of pesticides and fungicides. The green revolution and the industrialisation of agriculture have resulted in farmers growing fewer varieties of crops with a high degree of genetic uniformity within each variety. In the UK there are now only two officially recommended varieties of Spring wheat for farmers to grow. In the past farmers planted large numbers of different , locally adapted  varieties with  wide genetic variation.

 We may need the genes of old native breeds at sometime in the future. I have only listed a few of the examples discussed.  The campaign  to" liberate diversity" from uniformity, legislation and commercial control continues.
Purebred Shetland ducks from original colour drawing by Sanna Isbister 1993
Small farmers, including Crofters also need conserving. You may not realise it when you are in a supermarket but 70 per cent of the global population are fed by the efforts of smallholder  farmers. These are the people who can conserve rare crops and stock in situ,while supplying high quality food to local consumers.

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