Back from the brink

The endangered Roux du Valais sheep

A pioneering Swiss foundation dedicated to saving endangered species celebrated its 20th birthday this year.

This content was published on December 24, 2002 - 11:47

Pro Specie Rara (PSR) has clocked up notable successes in its two decades, thanks to the work of a sea of volunteers.

Twenty-one breeds of farm animals, 1,600 different varieties of fruit and 700 varieties of cereal and vegetables have been saved from extinction.

Nineteenth century Swiss literature refers to green fields upon which animals grazed and plants grew, the like of which are no longer to be found here.

In December 2000, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, reported that every week two breeds of farm animals die out worldwide.

In Switzerland, only two breeds of pig and three different breeds of cow are commonly kept by farmers. Similarly, only a narrow range of crop types is cultivated.

PSR argues that with the loss of genetic resources, future generations will be unable to adapt agricultural production to a changing environment.

Its director, Béla Bartha, insists, "Agriculture should not be restricted to such a narrow genetic base, as nobody knows what the demands of the future will be."

There is another reason for preserving ancient species.

"These old species of plants and animals are part of our cultural heritage," explains Bartha. "They tell us a lot about the ways in which people used to live in Switzerland. Keeping traditional species alive opens a door into an old world, in which people had different values to now."

Intensive farming

A few decades ago, qualities such as robustness, longevity and suitability for harsh Alpine landscapes and climates were considered winning characteristics in cattle, pigs and sheep. They were of equal importance to meat yield and fertility.

The turning point was the 1930s in Switzerland. The onset of industrialisation led to intensive farming of fast growing, high meat/milk yielding cattle and sheep.

With the focus on performance breeding, many traditional races fell out of favour. It seemed that characteristics once valued in farming communities would be lost forever.

Detective work

With many races on the brink of extinction, PSR was set up on November 15 1982.

Its core of six volunteers - among them academics and teachers - scoured valleys and barns throughout the land for the few remaining examples of endangered breeds.

They uncovered a whole array of creatures already thought to have died out.

PSR enlisted the help of a fast-increasing circle of gardeners, farmers and hobby breeders. There are now 2,000 volunteers in Switzerland engaged in the effort to propagate threatened breeds and crop types.

But it has sometimes been a rocky ride. In 1986, attempts to breed the Appenzell bearded hen ended in disaster when all the chicks showed signs of inbreeding.

In the same year, the tiny Bundner Oberland sheep herd produced almost exclusively female lambs.

Selective breeding

In each rescue case, PSR sets up what is known as a herd nucleus, a pool of purebred animals, whose genetic and physical characteristics are minutely detailed in herd books.

Breeders seeking new animals to mate with their own have to consult the herd book to find the ideal characteristics for a match.

With as few as 20 animals of one race in existence, selective breeding can regenerate the herd to a safe size. If there are fewer than 200 of a certain breed in existence, the race is thought to be extremely endangered.

Success Story

Alongside the Swiss-based World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), PSR is now recognised globally as one of the most powerful campaigners for the survival of endangered species, and the only foundation in the world that also fights for the survival of ancient forms of plant life.

Many breeds of animals now bleat, moo, grunt, cackle and quack in more than a thousand barns across the nation, thanks to PSR's intervention.

Orchards now bear ancient varieties of fruit - huge apples, for example, far larger than the general shop size. Blue potatoes thrive, cucumbers grow bent and tomatoes have regained their original flavour.

Some of these fruits and vegetables can be found in the Coop, in the organic food section.

The lean meat produced by Evolèner cows, Woolly pigs and Roux du Valais sheep can only be bought from specialist butchers.

Demand far outstrips supply at the moment, and PSR is planning to set up a market place on its web site, from which customers will be able to purchase such products.

swissinfo, Julie Hunt

Key facts

PSR was founded in 1982 when many animal breeds and crop types were facing extinction in Switzerland.
21 breeds of farm animals, 1,600 different varieties of fruit and 700 varieties of cereal and vegetables have been rescued by PSR.
For six years, this work was carried out by unpaid volunteers.
A breed is considered endangered if there are less than 200 in the herd.

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In brief

Pro Specie Rara is dedicated to rescuing from extinction and propagating ancient breeds of farm animals, crops and cereals. The aim is to maintain genetic diversity in agricultural production, and to preserve part of Switzerland's cultural heritage. The Foundation has notched up many successes in its twenty years of existence, and is now recognised as one of the world's leading environmental campaigners.

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