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HERITAGE SHEEP - OBJECTIVES OF THE PROGRAMME

Heritage Sheep Breeds (HSBs) are defined as genetically distinct, geographically concentrated and adapted to their environments. Typically, these sheep breeds are "local" breeds, traditionally farmed for commercial use and play an important role in the culture and rural economy of the regions in which they are managed.

The aim of HERITAGESHEEP is to establish a European-wide conservation programme of HSB genetic resources for the diversification of production in livestock agriculture and for their central importance in the long-term sustainability of medium to low input farming systems. Achievement of this aim will have considerable benefits for the European Union. These include: (1) improving the quality of the environment through reducing the negative impact of intensive agricultural practices; (2) using natural resources in a sustainable way to manufacture products for the benefit of regional communities; (3) developing strategies to enhance the profitability of local breeds as a means of supporting the growth and competitiveness of rural economies.

Through a European Regional Focal Point (ERFP) scoping study undertaken by The Sheep Trust during 2005, it has become apparent that all Member States across the European Union (EU) can identify HSBs. In each case, the breeds are confined to specific regions in the Member States, and through their adaptation to local environmental conditions, are used successfully in extensive, medium to low-input farming systems. Despite the value of these breeds and their genetic resources for both environmental and economic sustainability of local communities throughout the EU, they are only beginning to be recognised as "breeds at risk" within National Action Plans of Farm Animal Genetic Resources (FAnGR).

A general threat facing all HSBs is the risk of disease entering the region in which the breed is geographically concentrated. Under these circumstances, the impact from the disease and from procedures such as culling, taken to prevent disease spread, can be catastrophic. This risk was highlighted during the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic in the UK, when regional breeds located in the disease centres suffered disproportionate losses to their gene pools. Other general threats can be identified, as well as those that are specific to a particular sheep breed and / or location in a particular Member State. 

Heritage Sheep Breeds are already used to support the environmental and economic sustainability of local rural communities in the Member States and may reasonably be expected to become even more significant in agriculture in the community as low input farming systems are prioritised. In addition, with the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), breeds such as HSBs that are environmentally adapted to their local geographical regions will become evermore important given the de-coupling of subsidies from production, with increased focus on the environmental status of agricultural holdings. 

Despite their considerable significance and future potential for diversification of production in agriculture, sustainable management and improved quality of the environment, to date, there has been no coordinated activity in Europe aimed at HSB genetic resources. In this context, the proposed targeted action will play a crucially important role to characterise, evaluate, conserve and utilise these resources across Europe.

 

Action Heritage Sheep AGRI GEN RES 040 receives financial support from the European Commission, Genetic Resources in Agriculture, under European Commission Council Regulation (EC) No 870/2004 AGRI GEN RES 2006 HERITAGE SHEEP