The Shropshire Sheep

Shropshire Ewe – Painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 30 x 24 inches

The Welsh Marches, from the Medieval Latin Marchia Walliae, once formed a buffer zone of counties between England from the semi-autonomous Principality of Wales. Today the Marches consist of Shropshire to the north and Herefordshire to the south. The geography of the area is varied. Some of it has always been prized agricultural land, but there are also hills and heaths which are not suitable for growing crops, but very suitable for grazing sheep. The Shropshire Sheep is a product of this region. It is thought to be the descendent of three now extinct native varieties: The Long Mynd, a horned sheep from the high, moorland plateau of the Shropshire hills; the Morfe Common which was a dark-faced sheep with small horns and fine wool; and the grey-faced Cannock Chase which came from the enclosed land of the former Cannock forest in neighbouring Staffordshire. It may have been improved by the Clun Forest, Leicester, and Cotswold breeds as well. By the mid-1800s, it was a recognizable breed known by the name Shropshire Sheep making it one of the oldest recognised British breeds of sheep. A Shropshire Breed Society and Flock Book were created by devoted breeders in 1882.

The Shropshire was first imported into Canada in 1861, probably by the Miller family in Ontario who maintained a flock continuously until 1996. Between 1885 and 1895 twenty-thousand Shropshires were exported from Britain to supply the growing world market. By 1908 the sheep was one of the most popular in Canada, second only to the Leicester. Commonly referred to as The Farm Flock Favourite, by the 1920s the Shropshire was possibly the most popular and influential breed of sheep in North America.


Page from the Flock Book of the Shropshire Sheep Breeders Association, 1897


The popularity of Shropshires was due to their many excellent qualities. They are docile, medium-sized sheep with a ‘blocky’ body shape, ie. short in the leg and long in the back, which is desirable for meat production.  They are white with brown ears, eyes, noses and legs and are covered in wool from their nose to their toes, and grow a good, medium –fine, dense fleece of around 2.5 kg in weight. They are excellent grazers who produce heavy, lean carcasses on poor pasture. The rams, who weigh between 90 and 140 kg, are excellent terminal sires for meat production with other breeds. Shropshire ewes weigh between 65 and 90 kg and are prolific. Their lambing rate can run as high as one hundred and ninety percent. The abundant, rich milk also makes excellent cheese. Lambs gain weight extremely quickly without grain and can be finished on grass alone.

Photo from the 1897 Flock Book showing the traditional Shropshire type.

The decline of the Shropshire was due to a combination of factors. In the 1940s, American breeders began to take the ‘wool from the nose to toes’ wool cover of the breed to the extreme. They also bred for shorter, stockier sheep. This resulted in animals which were too small, difficult to shear, and prone to ‘wool blindness’ – they were so covered in wool that they could not see.  In Britain the Shrop’s decline was due to trade disruption caused by two world wars, hoof and mouth disease outbreaks which made it impossible to export British sheep, and reduced demand for large roasts of lamb and mutton.

Sheep breeders in Britain came to prefer larger, taller sheep with less wool around the legs and face. American breeders eventually followed suit with the result that the breed was severely altered.


American Yearling Shropshire Ewes (©2009 Steven Walling, Wikimedia  Commons)

Although the wool-covered, stocky, old-fashioned Shropshire is nearly gone, the modern, open-faced version has rebounded to the extent that it was removed from the UK Rare Breeds Survival Trust conservation list in 2013. The renewed interest in the breed in Britain and Europe is due to one of the Shrop’s more unusual and previously unrecognized traits: it is the only breed of sheep that doesn’t strip the bark off fruit trees or eat the leaves of conifers. This behavioural quirk has made it a popular lawn-mower in orchards and Christmas tree plantations.

In Canada the Shropshire’s numbers went into serious decline in the 1950s and have never recovered. From a population which once numbered in the thousands, perhaps one hundred and forty registered Shropshires remain in the entire country.


Old-fashioned Canadian Shropshire ewes (photo courtesy of Rare Breeds Canada)




The Canadian Woolgrowers Co-operative (

Dohner, Janet Vorwald: The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press 2001

Oklahoma State University, Breeds of Livestock , Department of Animal Science (

Shropshire Breeders Association, The Flock Book of Shropshire Sheep, McCorquodale & Co. 1897

The Shropshire Sheep Breeders Association, UK  (

Staffordshire Working Lives online archive (

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia  (

Le mouton Shropshire

The Rhode Island Red

Rhode Island Red Rooster – 70 cm x 60 cm painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel


The Rhode Island Red is possibly the most iconic and widespread chicken breed in the world. Starting around 1830, farmers near the town of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and also in nearby Massachusetts set about developing an excellent dual-purpose chicken for farm use. They began with the chickens that were already commonly found on their farms, chickens which were not any specific breed, but were a mix of many. A handful of varieties are thought to have been particularly influential in the development of the Rhode Island Red, each contributing different qualities and characteristics to the breed. These were probably the Shanghai, Java, Brown Leghorn, and Malay. In the nineteenth century, ‘Shanghai birds’ meant either Brahmas and or Cochins, both of which were commonly used in North America for meat and were imported in large numbers in the first half of the century. The Java was developed in the US as a meat bird and it is now nearly extinct. The Brown Leghorn is an Italian breed renowned for its excellence as an egg layer. Malays are large game birds with sleek, hard feathers. Malays were not common in North America at that time, although they were extremely popular in Europe. The Malay influence may have come from an imported English black-breasted, red rooster which gave the Rhode Island Red its distinctive colouring and the roosters their testy disposition.

The Rhode Island Red became very popular soon after its development and was commonly used as a utility bird on many farms in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. It was not exhibited until 1879, at which point it was called the Golden Red or Golden Buff.  The bird acquired the name we know it by today in either Massachusetts or Rhode Island somewhere between 1879 and 1895, depending on who is telling the story. The Rhode Island Red was admitted to the American Standard of Perfection in 1904. A variety with a small, rose comb was standardized in 1905.


Rhode Island Red memorial erected in 1925 in Little Compton, Rhode Island (Photo ©Mackensen 2008, Wikimedia Commons)


Rhode Island Reds are classified as medium to heavy birds. Roosters weigh around 3.8 kg and hens approximately 2.7 kg. Both are excellent, flavourful stewing chickens.  They are yellow skinned birds with long, rectangular bodies and yellow legs. Their beaks are reddish, their combs and wattles are red. The hens, which have a quieter disposition than the roosters, are excellent layers and can lay between 200 – 300 dark brown eggs per year beginning as early as six months of age. The Rhode Island Red’s overall colour is a deep, rich, mahogany red with some black in the wings and the tail of the rooster. They are hardy birds who are extremely adaptable and will eat almost anything. Rhode Island Reds were the preferred farm chicken in many parts of the world until the mid-twentieth century.


Illustration from the American fable The Little Red Hen circa 1918


It is hard to imagine how such an excellent chicken breed could become endangered. In truth, the Rhode Island Red has been the victim of its own success. The beautiful, deep red colour of the Reds made them popular with poultry breeders who bred only for shows with the result that many are bred purely for colour and appearance, but not for utility. The mahogany plumage which has made the breed popular with exhibitors has made them less popular as meat birds because of their dark pin feathers. Also, as agriculture became more specialized dual-purpose breeds fell out of favour. But as egg layers the little red hens were almost without equal, and it was their egg production capacity that came to be their most desirable trait.

Since the 1940s, the Rhode Island Red has been selectively bred for more efficient egg production, becoming smaller, lighter colored, and less broody as a result. (The Livestock Conservancy)

Modern, egg production-type Rhode Island Reds continue to be used in the creation of commercial hybrid laying hens such as red sex-links, Bovan Goldlines, and ISA browns. So, although the Rhode Island Red of the nineteenth century lives on in a sense, by focusing on limited traits such as egg-laying to the detriment of all else, the original large, hardy, dark red, dual-purpose farmyard chicken is almost gone. The breed is considered vulnerable in Canada and is on the ‘watch’ list in the US.


Rhode Island Red hen (Wikimedia commons)



Ark of Taste (

Dohner, Janet Vorwald: The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry, Yale University Press, 2001

The Livestock Conservancy (

Wikipedia (


The Suffolk Horse

Colour, quality, compactness, and a hardy constitution.


 Suffolk Horse – painted paper and gold leaf on panel 60 cm x 70 cm


The counties of Norfolk and Suffolk originally comprised the ancient Kingdom of East Anglia on Britain’s east coast. Surrounded by wetlands to the west, sea to the North and East, and the Thames estuary to the South, much of the land was marshland and it was thus relatively isolated from the rest of Britain. But the land there was fertile, and the area was densely settled and actively farmed first by the Angles and the Saxons who arrived at the end of the Roman period around the year 410 CE, then by the Danes who invaded in 865. The Danes almost certainly brought horses of a type similar to the modern Jutland breed with them, and it is thought that these horses are the foundation breed of the Suffolk Punch.

Viking stone stele showing a horseman circa 800 CE (


Enclosure happened early in East Anglia. Enclosure was a legal process in England wherein communal land was bought up by farmers and consolidated into large, privately held farms enclosed by fences. This practice happened as early as the 13th century in some parts of the country, but it became more widespread during the Tudor dynasty.  Because Suffolk land was already agriculturally developed and enclosed earlier than other places, they made the shift from ox-power to horse-power earlier as well. Large farms meant hired labour, and farmers soon realized it was cheaper to plough with horses because they got the job done faster than oxen. Enclosure also gave farmers much greater control over the breeding of livestock than they would have had in a system of commons where animals bred freely. The earliest recorded evidence of a distinct “Suffolk’ type of horse occurs at the beginning of the 16th century.

In the 17th century, East Anglian farmers embarked on a process of draining the extensive marshes to reclaim the heavy, rich soil for crops. But draining marshland required expertise, so Dutch contractors were employed to build dykes and drainage ditches. It is believed that the Dutch brought Flemish and Norman heavy horses to England with them.  These imported horses were larger than the native Suffolks, and would have been used to increase the size and weight of the Suffolk type, bringing it closer to the animal we know today.

Historical photo of a Suffolk Horse (The Blog for Memories of East Anglia,

The Suffolk horse, also called the Suffolk Punch or Suffolk Sorrel, is the oldest unchanged British draft breed, and it has the oldest Stud Book second only to that of Thoroughbreds. All modern Suffolks can be traced back to a single stallion called Crisp’s Horse who was foaled in the Suffolk village of Ufford in 1768. In 1784 Reverend Sir John Cullum described the horse type found in Hawstead parish :

“Having mentioned horses I must take this opportunity of doing justice to a most useful breed of that animal, not indeed peculiar to this parish, but I believe to the county. The breed is well known by the name of Suffolk Punches. They are generally about fifteen hands high, of a remarkably short and compact make; their legs bony and their shoulders loaded with flesh. Their colour is often of a light sorrel, which is as much remembered in some distant part s of the kingdom as their form.”

“Historical Sketch of the Suffolk Horse” from chapter 11, The Horse in the Furrow by G.E. Evans

Suffolks were called ‘Punches’ for their punched up, heavily muscled necks and bodies, or possibly because they were round like punch bowls.  Suffolk Punches are short-backed, round, heavy, and deep. They have honest, intelligent heads, and few, if any, white markings. They are always chestnut in colour, ranging from dark liver-chestnut to light sorrel. The breed is taller now than it was in Rev. Cullum’s day as today they average between 16 and 17 hands. Suffolks are famous for their incredible strength in front of the plough as they were bred to pull, not for their showy leg action like Clydesdales. The soil of East Anglia is heavy clay, so their legs are free from feathering. Their short legs are also set close together to enable them to walk in the furrow without disturbing the crop. But this does not mean Suffolks are slow. On the contrary, they move quite briskly. And they can keep up a good pace all day.

‘According to traditional Anglian practice, the horses were fed very early, before dawn. During their work day, which was a good nine hours long, they took only short breaks, unlike the big midday break and feed of many other drafters. Because of their stamina and fast walk, Suffolk horses worked longer hours and were expected to accomplish more in a day than many other breeds. “ J.V. Dohner , Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry.

Suffolk Gelding (Mars) owned by Sylvie Denault, Beauharnois, QC

People who keep Suffolks love them because they are the ideal working horse. On the small side for a draft breed, they are more manageable and economical than larger horses. They are healthy, long-lived, and have a steady temperament. They are willing workers whether they are put to work in the fields or hauling trees out of the bush, or used as horses for pleasure driving. The Suffolk can also be crossed with lighter breeds to produce a heavy hunter type.

Suffolks first came to Canada in 1865. Their importation was centred primarily in Ontario where they were used for farming and logging.  More Suffolk Punches were imported to North America in the early twentieth century, and a Canadian Suffolk Society was formed in 1911. But they were never imported in the same number as Percherons, Clydesdales or Belgians, and so were a little less common to begin with. When mechanization changed agriculture and machines took over the industrial jobs of horses in the mid-twentieth century, the Suffolk was in a weaker position than other breeds. In East Anglia, before the First World War, there were thousands of Suffolks.  By the 1950’s approximately 200 Suffolk Punches were left in the entire world.  Suffolk Punches remain endangered worldwide and are currently listed as critically endangered on the Canadian Livestock Conservation List.



American Suffolk Horse Association (

Dohner, Janet Vorwald,  Encyclopedia of Endagered and Historic Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press, 2001

Evans, George Ewart , The Horse in the Furrow, Faber & Faber, London, 2012 ebook edition

Ford, Merlin, A Brief Overview of Draft Horse Numbers (

The Kingdom of East Anglia, Jutland Horses (Wikipedia Entries,

Rare Breeds Survival Trust (

The Silver Appleyard Duck

Silver Appleyard Duck (female) 70 cm X 60 cm, painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel

The Silver Appleyard duck was first developed in the late 1930s by renowned British waterfowl breeder Reginald Appleyard at the Priory Waterfowl Farm, near Ixworth, Suffolk, in England. Besides being a respected breeder of waterfowl, he also developed the Ixworth breed of chicken, and was the author of several books on the husbandry and breeding of ducks and geese. In a promotional pamphlet he produced in 1936, he described his goal with the Silver Appleyard duck as:

An effort to Breed and make a beautiful Breed of Duck. Combination of beauty, size, lots of big white eggs, white skin, deep long wide breasts. Birds have already won at Bethnal Green and the London Dairy Show and ducklings killed at 9 weeks, 6 ½ lbs cold and plucked.  (Reginald Appleyard’s pamphlet for the promotion of the Silver Appleyard breed as excerpted in The Domestic Duck by Mike Ashton, The Crowood Press Ltd. 2015)

The Silver Appleyard was meant to be an ideal dual purpose duck: an active forager that was fast growing, combining excellent egg production with a meaty carcass.  The white skin of the Appleyard was considered more visually appealing than the dark ‘gamey’ skin of breeds such as the Rouen. And the Appleyard’s egg production exceeded that of the white skinned Pekin. By most accounts, Reginald Appleyard succeeded at his task; the duck he produced did indeed meet all of those practical requirements, as well as being rather beautiful.

Pair of early Silver Appleyards  from “The Domestic Duck” by Chris and Mike Ashton, The Crowood Press Ltd, 2015 e-book edition)

Reginald Appleyard continued to develop his excellent duck breed until his death in 1964, but he never standardized it. Nor did he mention the breed again in any of his published writings after the 1940s, which seems odd given both his skill as a breeder and the utility of the bird. Some waterfowl experts speculate that the reason Appleyard ceased to promote the duck which bore his name was because the colouring of the bird was not stable, and that both light and dark coloured ducks appeared. Nor did he ever make public the breeds he used in the Silver Appleyard’s development, although it is suspected that he may have used Rouen Clair, or possibly Mallard, and perhaps Pekin. So re-creating the breed from scratch would  – in pre-DNA test days at least  – have required some guess work.

Two Silver Appleyard males (miniature version)  (photo by Anna Maria Barbieri, Wikimedia Commons)

The Silver Appleyard is a large, heavy duck, and one of the best layers in the heavyweight category. A female can lay between 220 and 265 good-sized eggs per year.  The weight of the bird ranges from 3.6 – 4.1 kg for the drake and 3.2 – 3.6 kg for the female.  The Silver Appleyard has a slightly upright posture with a gentle slope down the back to the tail. The male has a green head with silver ‘eyebrows’ and silver at the throat.  The breast of the male varies in colour from claret (red-brown) and chestnut to light fawn. The wings are grey and white with a blue cross-stripe. The tail is dark bronze; the legs and feet are orange; the bill has a slightly green colour with a black tip. The female’s overall colour is mostly silver-white with brown and fawn markings. She also has a blue cross-stripe on the wings. Her bill is yellow to orange with a black tip. Her legs and feet are also orange.

In the years after the second world war when poultry and waterfowl breeding and husbandry grew less popular, the Silver Appleyard nearly disappeared . Some ducks were sent to the US in the 1960s, but the breed was never widely distributed. It wasn’t until waterfowl breeder Tom Bartlett of Gloucestershire, UK, took up the cause of the Silver Appleyard that the duck experienced any kind of resurgence. Bartlett‘s breeding program made it possible for the breed to be standardized in 1982, and he also developed a miniature variety which was standardized in 1997. The Silver Appleyard was recognised by the American Poultry Association in 1998.

The first significant importation of Silver Appleyards in North America was made by Dave Holderread at the Holderread Waterfowl Farm and Preservation Centre  in Corvallis Oregon in the 1980s. Holderread made the birds available to the public in 1984.

The number of Silver Appleyards in Canada is unknown, although likely to be very small, and it is not used for commercial production.  So far as anyone knows, the birds which are currently in Canada derive from the stock at Corvallis. The breed is listed as endangered in Canada.


Sources:   Ashton, Mike,  The Domestic Duck, The Crowood Press Ltd. UK. E-book 2015

The British Waterfowl Association (

Dohner, Janet Vorwald, The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered  Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press 2001

Holderread, Dave, Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. Pownal, VT: Storey Publishing, 2001.

Rare Breeds Survival Trust, The Silver Appleyard,

Personal email correspndence with breeder Brad Metzer of Ontario, Canada








The Mysterious Goats of San Clemente Island

San Clemente Island Goat Buck – painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 60 cm x 76 cm


Off the coast of Southern California there is an archipelago called the Channel Islands which consists of eight islands and spans some 250 km from San Miguel Island in the north to San Clemente Island in the south. The Channel Islands are some of the oldest inhabited areas in North America – at least thirteen thousand years – and were continuously inhabited by the indigenous population until the early nineteenth century. The first Europeans to see these islands were Spanish explorers. Juan Cabrillo claimed the islands for Spain in 1542.  On some of the islands, these explorers left behind goats as a food supply for the sailors, should they return. And the goats, behaving as goats do, adapted to their arid island home and bred amongst themselves for centuries until there were thousands of them.

The Californian Channel Islands (Wikimedia commons)


Quite a story, isn’t it? If only it were true. Well, most of it IS true, except for the part about the goats.

Let’s start again.

For a long time, the story about Spanish explorers leaving the goats on the island was believed to be true. Then archaeological research caught up with the mythology about the place and showed there was no physical evidence to support the story.  Indigenous people had inhabited the islands continuously until the early nineteenth century, yet no goat remains were found in the middens at archaeological sites.

In the early nineteenth century, sheep ranchers from what was then Spanish California began to bring sheep to Santa Catalina Island. The sheep herders also brought along some goats to act as ‘lead’ animals for the sheep since goats will more willingly follow humans around than sheep will.

By 1848 the United States had taken California and the Channel Islands from Mexico.  Californian ranchers continued to graze sheep on Santa Catalina and San Clemente. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, some of the lead goats got loose on Santa Catalina, and, behaving as goats do…soon there were thousands of goats there. But that doesn’t explain how goats got to San Clemente.  The distance between the two islands is about 54 km, and, yes, goats CAN swim, but to swim across 54 km of open ocean? Probably not.

Photo of Salvador Ramirez by J. S. Dixon, 1920.

Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkley, California (


In 1920 an ornithologist named Joseph S. Dixon went to the Channel Islands to study wildlife. During his time on Santa Catalina and San Clemente, Dixon met Salvador Ramirez who had worked on Santa Catalina as a shepherd for many years. In 1875, with permission of his employers, Ramirez introduced a pair of foxes to the ecosystem of San Clemente Island.  And he also claimed to have introduced some goats.

J.S. Dixon’s  field notes from 1920 showing entry for arrival of goats.

Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, Berkley, California (


So it seems that the mystery of how the goats got to San Clemente has been solved. The more interesting question, though, is where did the goats come from in the first place?

A 2007 DNA study conducted by the Livestock Conservancy and the University of Cordoba in Spain showed that the San Clemente goats are genetically remote from other extant Iberian breeds. So they are not Spanish goats and are not related to the other goats in the region which are descended from the herds on the mission farms of California. A further large DNA study of several Creole goat varieties (Creole goats are mixed-breed and landrace goats descended from the various goats brought to the Americas by Europeans) was published in 2017 by researchers in Spain, Portugal, the US, and several South American Countries. San Clemente goats were among the goats studied and were found to be both highly inbred and, yet again, genetically unique. The results of the genetic analysis supported the idea that the San Clementes were indeed an old population left in isolation for a long period of time. But they are not related to any Creole goat variety found in North, South, or Central America. They are also genetically very different from commercial breeds such as Nubians, a breed originally from the Middle-East and North Africa which is widely distributed. The origin of the goats of San Clemente remains a mystery.

The Island of San Clemente was taken over by the US Navy in 1934. Without pressure from predators, the goats proliferated on the island until the 1970’s when their huge number (15 000 +) made them a threat to the island’s rare plants and other wildlife. To protect the ecosystem, the Navy began an extermination program to eradicate the goat population. (The goat population on Santa Catalina had already been reduced by hunting.) In the 1980’s when some 4000 goats remained on San Clemente, the Navy planned to rid the island of the remaining goats by shooting them from helicopters. This stirred the ire of animal welfare groups, one of whom (Fund for Animals) succeeded in getting a court injunction to stop the aerial slaughter. Fund for Animals proposed trapping and relocating the goats instead and volunteered to remove all the goats from the island.  They were able to remove about 3000 goats between 1985 and 1986.

Many of the goats were adopted as pets. Many males were neutered because Fund for Animals actively discouraged breeding the goats. Fortunately a few small herds were saved and there is now some renewed interest in the breed, particularly since their unique genetics have come to light.

San Clemente Kid at Rarefield Farm, Dalkeith Ontario (Photo © Judith Sevigny RarefieldHeritageFarm )


San Clemente Island goats are small, although they are larger than dwarf breeds. The males weigh around 45 kg, the females closer to 35 kg. They are fine boned and are often described as deer-like in appearance. Their coat colour is mainly reddish with a black ‘cape’ on the shoulders and neck, and black markings on the face, legs, and tail.  Both sexes are horned, with the horns of the bucks often becoming very large. The does give birth with ease and are excellent mothers. They are much loved for their docile temperament. Both males and females have ‘low odour’. Although they are small, San Clementes are considered a dual purpose breed, used for both meat and milk. The milk is especially desirable because it is largely free of the ‘goaty’ smell which many people find objectionable. Additionally, their unique genetics make them an excellent option for crossbreeding with other commercial breeds. There are currently a few farms raising the goats both in Canada and in the US, the largest of which is a herd of over two hundred San Clementes located in Nebraska. With some seven hundred San Clemente goats left world-wide, their status remains critical.

Sources: The San Clemente Goat Foundation (; Mother Earth News Breed Profile: San Clemente Goats (Video,;

San Clemente Goat – The Livestock Conservancy (;

Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encylclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry, Yale University Press 2001 ; Genetic diversity and patterns of population structure in Creole goats from the Americas,  in Animal Genetics, Immunogenetics, Molecular Genetics and Functional Genomics, doi: 10.1111/age.12529, 2017 (helpfully translated from the science by Leslie Ordal)


The Newfoundland Pony

The Newfoundland pony stands out as remarkable amongst other rare breeds, and is a growing favourite of world renowned geneticists and rare breed experts. It remains an “unimproved” landrace breed in a world where very few remain.

“What is a Newfoundland Pony?” Jan. 08/2018

The Newfoundland Pony – 60 cm X 70 cm painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel


The Island of Newfoundland is rocky, windy, and isolated. The soils are thin and the climate is harsh. Anyone, or thing, that lives there needs a certain hardiness to survive.  The very first inhabitants of Newfoundland were indigenous peoples. The Vikings had a settlement there around the year 1000 CE, but gave it up. Not for another five hundred years would any European colony be established on that rocky island in the cold North Atlantic.

Fish is what eventually drew Europeans to the shores of Newfoundland.  In 1497 Henry VII of England sent John Cabot on a voyage of discovery westward to explore the Atlantic, with the goal of finding a trade route to China. Cabot did not find China, but he found cod. By the early 16th century, the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese all fished for cod off the Grand Banks and had small, impermanent settlements along the coast.  The British formally took possession of the island in 1583, although the French continued to claim fishing rights near Placentia. The fortunes of Newfoundland passed back and forth between the French and English until the Treaty of Utrecht ceded the Island to the English in 1713.

Plaque in St. John’s commemorating the acquisition of Newfoundland

by Sir Humphrey Gilbert on behalf of Elizabeth I of England. (Wikimedia Commons)

Colonisation happened slowly because the primary interest of the British was acquiring fish and not establishing a colony, so at first only temporary fishing settlements were allowed. Initially women were not even permitted to live in Newfoundland so as not to tempt fishermen to settle there permanently. Eventually, though, the settlements did become permanent. As the number of colonists increased so did the need for lumber for building and the need to grow at least some crops.  It wasn’t long before horses became a necessity.

But the horses which would come to Newfoundland could not be just any horses. They had to be sturdy, thrifty animals that could make do with limited forage and survive the tough conditions of life on the island. The Moorland ponies of the British Isles were already known to thrive in similar conditions, and so these hardy ponies were the first ‘horses’ sent to the nascent Newfoundland colony.


As early as the 1680s, the colonists were in need of draft animals. The island’s British administrator placed an order for horses specifying that they be selected from Scotland, Ireland, and Wales because they needed to be hardy enough to live in the woods in the winter. These horses and subsequent shipments from southwest England tended to be moorland ponies, such as the Dartmoor, Exmoor, and New Forest, and the now extinct Galloway horse. In smaller numbers, Welsh, Connemara, Sable Island, and Acadian horses were introduced to the island.

(Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encyclopaedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds p.389)


Map of Newfoundland made by Captain James Cook, 1775. Centre for Newfoundland Studies,                                  Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, Newfoundland.


By the nineteenth century there were some proper horses in Newfoundland; they were mainly used in towns where there were roads. But the isolated outport communities on the rest of the island relied on pony-power. A coastal community might be inhabited from spring through to autumn, during which time fishing would be the primary occupation. In winter people often moved inland to escape the winter storms and would spend the season cutting firewood and hunting game. The tough little ponies were the draft animal of choice and were absolutely essential to the life of the Newfoundlanders. The ponies ploughed gardens and fields, hauled seaweed for fertilizer, pulled hay wagons, and dragged timber.  Some also worked in the mines. The ponies were a means of land transportation in both summer and winter, for both every day and special occasions such as weddings.



Newfoundland Pony hauling wood. Newfoundland Pony Society historical photo.


Newfoundlanders traditionally practiced a low maintenance version of husbandry where the ponies were concerned. Hay was expensive and good pasture hard to find. The ponies which were worked were mainly geldings, and while there was work for the ponies to do, they were kept close at hand. Mares, stallions, and foals were generally left to run free.  As the work the ponies were expected to do was usually seasonal, even the geldings spent part of the year at liberty.


“Some knew enough to come home,” says Cliff. “Herb March would turn out his pony each spring when he went fishing up to the Labrador. He’d come back in the fall and a few days later his pony would show up. It might have been 10 miles away but somehow it knew to return.”

  From the Newfoundland Pony by Suzanne Robichaud, Saltscapes Magazine


The isolated pony population adapted so well to the local conditions that the ponies became a recognizable type with little-to-no human intervention, but through evolutionary pressure alone. In this fashion, the Newfoundland Pony became a landrace. The strongest ones, the ones who could adjust to the harsh conditions, survived to breed and pass on their genes.


As the Newfoundland Pony is a landrace and not a breed, there is no true breed standard for the pony and quite a lot of variety in appearance is permitted. According to the Newfoundland Pony society, a Newfoundland pony :


  • Has a good temperament, is docile and easy to work with;
  • Is a good winter animal, being all around hardy;
  • Is sure-footed;
  • Has a structure that can vary from fine-boned types to larger stocky types;
  • Has a height that can vary from 11.0 to 14.2 hands;
  • Has a coat colour of bay, black, brown, chestnut, dun, grey, roan and white. Piebalds and skewbalds (pintos) are not acceptable;
  • Has a heavy coat which sometimes changes colour and character seasonally;
  • Has a thick mane and tail;
  • Has a low set of tail;
  • Has feathered fetlocks with hair extending below fetlock points;
  • Has flint-hard hooves;
  • Typically has dark limb points. White or light colour on limbs is acceptable;

George, the first Newfoundland Pony born in Quebec. Previously owned by Nathalie Durocher of Thetford Mines, currently residing at Villi Pony Refuge in New Hampshire. Photo courtesy of Nathalie Durocher

Newfoundland Ponies remained fairly common until the 1970’s when tractors, snowmobiles and the like finally eclipsed them for farm work and transportation.  Municipal by-laws made it difficult to own ponies as pasture was no longer readily available, and the owners were encouraged to geld their stallions. Now-useless ponies were shipped by the hundreds to Quebec where they were slaughtered for meat destined for Europe. There were approximately twelve thousand Newfoundland ponies in the mid-1970’s. Ten years later there were fewer than a hundred left.

In the fall of 1979, a group of concerned citizens got together and formed the Newfoundland Pony Society with the objective to preserve and protect the now endangered pony. In 1997, the government of Newfoundland passed the Heritage Animals Act of Newfoundland and Labrador which attempted to stem the losses by providing the animals with legal protection and making it illegal to transport ponies out of the province without a permit.

The Newfoundland pony remains endangered. The Newfoundland Pony Society estimates approximately 250 animals of breeding age remain.




Environment, Climate, and the 19th-Century Economy of Newfoundland (

The Canadian Encyclopedia, Online Edition (

The Newfoundland Pony Society,

Genetic diversity and admixture among Canadian, Mountain and Moorland and Nordic pony populations. Prystupa JM, Juras R, Cothran EG, Buchanan FC, Plante Y.(

The Newfoundland Pony, Suzanne Robicheau, Saltscapes Magazine (

Villi Pony Farm (

Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University press, 2001


White Park Cattle: A Truly Ancient Breed

White Park Cow and Calf   – painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 60cm x 76 cm

White cattle with coloured points have been recorded wherever we find cattle descended from the long-horned Hamitic cattle of Ancient Egypt. Hamitic cattle were dispersed throughout Europe and probably arrived in the British Isles around four thousand years ago. They may have come with the first Neolithic farmers who occupied the islands, or slightly later with the Bell Beaker people who moved into England a little after Stonehenge was constructed. In any case, the presence of white cattle in the British Isles goes back a long, long way.

In the time of the Celts (600 BCE) cattle meant wealth, and white cattle were especially prized for their unusual, other-worldly colouring.  White cattle appear often in Celtic mythology. Finnbhennach, the white bull of Connacht, is the catalyst for the events that unfold in the Pre-Christian Irish prose-epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-raid of Cooley, part of the Cúchulain Cycle). Elsewhere in the epic, herds of white cattle with dark ears belonging to the underworld Sidhe  (faeries) are mentioned.

Roman invasions of Celtic Britain began in 55 BCE. Roman author Pliny the Elder recorded that the Druid priests of the Celts used special white bulls as sacrifices in their ceremonies.

Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloth. They then sacrifice the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his auspicious to those to whom he has so granted it. (16.95) Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1855.

The Romans eventually pushed the Celts to the outer fringes of western and northern England, and also to Ireland. And the fleeing Celts took their herds of white cattle with them. Although these ancient herds went extinct in Ireland, they remained common in Wales until the nineteenth century. As late as the thirteenth century in Wales, we can find documents which show white cattle used as currency to pay fines.

Medb, Warrior Queen of Connacht, the original owner of Finnbhennach, the white bull of Connacht, who left her herd because he did not wish to be owned by a mere woman. Illustration by J.C. Leyendecker. Public Domain. (Wikimediacommons)

The ancient white cattle of the Celts were the progenitors of the modern White Park breed – if a breed can be called modern when it is eight hundred years old.  White Park herds were developed by the medieval practice of ‘emparking’.  A license to empark was granted to wealthy nobles by the king to enable them to create private hunting parks for the hunting of game. The hunting parks were enclosed by high fences, banks, and ditches to prevent the game from getting out. In places where the white cattle remained, often living in a wild state, the bovines were ‘emparked’ along with deer, wild boars, and other wildlife.

The Forest Charter of 1225 by which Henry III granted English nobles the right to empark land.


White Park cattle remained in game parks and enclosed forests for centuries. The cattle were hunted initially, but were later domesticated and used for beef and milk and as oxen.  A few of these emparked herds, namely the Cadzow herd of Scotland and Dynevor herd in Wales, still exist today. As a result of their ancient lineage and the lack of modern ‘improvement’ in their bloodlines, White Parks are genetically distinct from nearly all other breeds of cattle.


A wild White Park Bull of the Chartley herd in Staffordshire.

The herd was in existence continuously until 1905, when it was dispersed. It has since been re-established.


White Parks are now most valued for their high quality beef, and their genetic ‘purity’ makes them an excellent choice for crossing with modern beef breeds  as they instil considerable hybrid vigour into their calves. White Parks are a medium sized breed with long backs. They are almost always white, although there is a recessive gene for black which occasionally appears.  They have dark-ringed eyes, dark ears, horn tips, feet, and udders- their ‘points’ – which  are usually black, but they can sometimes be dark red. Cows weigh around 600kg and bulls 900kg. The cows are excellent mothers with a strong protective instinct. White Park cattle can be farmed intensively, but do best when allowed to forage. They are thrifty cattle, and can convert poor forage into excellent meat.

Winnie the White Park calf at Havelock Fair, Havelock, QC, 2017.

The British government recognized the importance of maintaining such an ancient breed. In 1938, possibly because war with Germany seemed increasingly likely, a small number of cattle from the Cadzow herd were shipped to Canada where they were established at the Riverdale Zoo in Toronto.  Their offspring were sold; some were sent to other zoos in the United States, some to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for research, and others were sent to a ranch in Texas. Although the breed has rebounded somewhat in Britain, it remains on the watch list. The breed remains extremely rare in North America. The only herd to be found in Canada is on the Stoddart Family Farm in, appropriately enough, Little Britain, Ontario.

Sources: Miranda Green, Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge, 1992; Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Routledge, 1998; Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered livestock  and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press, 2001; Cuchulain of Muirthemne translated by Lady Augusta Gregory as excerpted in Dr. R. Curran,  Celtic Lore and Legend, Bookmart Press; Lady Augusta Gregory, THE WAR FOR THE BULL OF CUAILGNE, 1902 (; “White Park Cattle: Key Characteristics”, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, (; “History of the Breed”  by Lawrence Alderson, The White Park Cattle Society (; “Ancient-genome Study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain”, Ewen Calloway, Nature (Nature news online), 17 May, 2017



The Berkshire Pig

Berkshire Pig, painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel, 60X76 centimetres


The beginnings of most rare breeds are obscure. This is largely due to the fact that livestock breeding as we know it today is a relatively recent development compared to our history of animal husbandry which stretches back nearly ten thousand years. The systematic improvement of livestock by selective breeding and livestock record keeping only started in the late eighteenth century. Before that time, it was pretty much anything goes as far as livestock was concerned. Consequently, for a long time, there was a great deal of variety within regional domesticated animal types.

Map of Berkshire circa 1911 (Wikipedia)

The exceptionally flavourful pork from pigs kept in the Berkshire region to the west of London was famous as far back as the seventeenth century. There is an apocryphal story about Oliver Cromwell’s troops being stationed in Reading, near London, where they had occasion to eat the delicious bacon served in the inns there and remarked upon the tastiness of the meat. It is difficult to say if this story is true, but as an army marches on its stomach, it seems likely that Cromwell’s men would have been glad of good bacon whenever they could get it. Perhaps that bacon came from Berkshire pigs.

The earliest descriptions we have of the Berkshire pig are of a type of big pig that came in a variety of colours and shapes:

 In early nineteenth-century agricultural records, several differently appearing hogs were called Berkshires. Some were large red or sandy-colored stock, often with black spots. Others were colored black and white or spotted. Both prick and lop ears were seen.

(Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and poultry Breeds, p. 186. Yale University Press, 2001)

A Berkshire Pig as it appeared in the Canadian Farmer, 1866


Somewhere in the Berkshire’s history – probably in the late eighteenth century – genetics from Neapolitan pigs were brought in. These small, black Neapolitan pigs were likely derived from Asian – probably Chinese – breeding stock.  It is from the introduction of these Neapolitan (Chinese) pigs that the Berkshire developed the characteristics, i.e. black colouring and dished face, by which we recognize it today. In 1825 a breed registry for the Berkshire was begun in England, establishing the breed standard and making it one of the earliest recognised breeds.  An official breed society formed in England circa 1883.


The Berkshire is a medium sized black pig with white points, which is to say white feet, tail, and white markings on the face. They are short-legged and compact pigs, with prick (upright) ears, a ‘dished’ face and a medium-length snout ending in a slightly upturned nose.  Boars weigh approximately 280 kg. Sows weigh a bit less at around 220 kg. The breed is also known for its strong mothering instincts and milk production, its hardiness, and easy-going temperament. The Berkshire matures early and is ideal for meat production. It does well in confinement, but is also an excellent pig for the outdoors. Due to its dark skin, it does not sunburn as easily as white pigs. Berkshire pork is fine textured, well-marbled, a deep, rich pink in colour, and is exceptionally flavourful.

Berkshire piglet belonging to Brent and Janet Tolhurst, St-Chrysotome, QC


Berkshire pigs were exported to the US as early as 1823 and to Canada slightly after that. The breed was hugely popular in the nineteenth century – Queen Victoria herself once owned a Berkshire boar called The Ace of Spades – until the mid- twentieth century  when changes in pork production and in food ‘fashion’ made the Berkshire unpopular due in large part to the its dark skin. Consequently, the Berkshire’s numbers plummeted, and for many years the animal was considered critically endangered.


The Berkshire’s status has improved somewhat. The slow food movement in North America and Europe has helped to re-establish this excellent breed for what Berkshires offer the palate that modern industrial breeds do not: flavour.


The breed has also enjoyed long term popularity in Japan. Yes, you read that right- Japan. Sometime in Meiji era of the mid-nineteenth century, shortly after the breed standard was formally established in England, the Berkshire pig went back to Asia and found a home in Japan. In Kagoshima Prefecture, one may find the famous Kagoshima Black Pigs which produce pork of excellent quality that is highly sought after and commands high prices.  Kagoshima Black Pigs are the result of crosses between those nineteenth century Berkshires and indigenous pigs. The Japanese continue to import Berkshire bloodlines from Canada, the US and England.

Japanese advertisement for Kagoshima Black Pigs


Rare Breeds Canada lists the Berkshire as vulnerable as of the 2016 Conservation List.


Additional sources: Rare Breeds Survival Trust (; Lawrence Alderson, The Chance to Survive, A.H. Jolly (Editorial) Ltd, 1989 revised edition, Wikipedia Japan (kindly translated by Tad Mitsui. Thanks, Tad!)








The Light Sussex Chicken


Light Sussex Hen, 30 x 24 painted paper collage on panel


Chickens were first domesticated in Southeast Asia some ten thousand years ago and from there spread to nearly every part of the world. They reached the borders of Europe around 3000 BCE and arrived in Britain sometime during the Iron Age around 500 BCE.  But chickens did not become truly popular there as food until the Romans arrived a few hundred years later, and then chickens became VERY popular indeed.  One of the oldest handwritten documents ever found in Britain was a shopping list given by a Roman commander to his slave instructing him to buy twenty chickens at the market and “if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price.” 1

The Vindolanda Tablets, found near Hadrian’s Wall

The British Museum, UK. Photo by Michel Wal ©2008 (Wikimedia Commons)


In the southeast of England – Sussex, Kent, and Surrey –there were regional varieties of chickens which were commonly found on the small farms and in the villages of that area for a very long time. The Sussex breed of chicken was developed in the early nineteenth century from some of these very old varieties of chickens. The Sussex was initially developed as a meat bird, with crossbreeding to Dorking, Brahma, and Cochin to produce a chicken that would fatten readily in order to supply the ever expanding market of urban nineteenth century London.  The demand for Sussex chickens was so great that they even had their own train to the city!

Although the Sussex was acknowledged as a breed in the first half of the nineteenth century, no formal breeders’ club formed until 1903.

The very first poultry show, held in England in 1845, recognized these native birds: the Dorking, the Surrey, and the Kent or Old Sussex Fowl.  Although the original Sussex Fowl was probably speckled, several color varieties were already developed, including the Red. The Sussex was mainly used as a table bird. 2

The Light Sussex was one of the first three standardized colour varieties, the others being the aforementioned speckled and the red. The Light was developed as a dual purpose bird by cross breeding with prolific egg-laying Mediterranean breeds, and is thus prized both for its table weight and good egg production. A hen from a productive line can lay more than 250 eggs per year.

Light Sussex Hen and Rooster, owned by Kevin MacFarlane

The Light Sussex is a stocky bird with soft feathers. Its plumage is mainly white with an attractive black pattern on the hackle feathers at the base of the neck. The wing tips are black, and so is the tail. The bird’s skin colour is white. The legs are pale, as is the beak, but the comb and wattles are bright red. Roosters can weigh up to 4 kg (9 lbs).  Hens are a bit smaller at approximately 3 kg (7 lbs). The birds are good foragers and do well in free range situations, but also adapt to confinement.


The Sussex came to Canada with settlers from Britain in the early nineteenth century. It is reputed that they were exported to Canada in large numbers at the behest of British bankers who were fearful of losing their investments when Canadian grain farmers suffered hard years and mass foreclosures on farms were a very real threat. Once the wheat crop had been removed, the Light Sussex chickens gleaned the harvested grain fields. Sometimes this second chicken ‘crop’ brought in more money than the wheat.  For a time, the Light Sussex was the most popular dual purpose breed of chicken in both Canada and England.  The Light Sussex never did take off in quite the same way in the United States, except on those farmsteads along the Canadian border. Its lack of popularity in the U.S. (and to some extent also in Quebec) was due to its white skin – the very reason it was prized by the British. 3

The Light Sussex was particularly popular in Canada during the 1940’s when large numbers of the birds were imported to the country to be raised here in order to supply the desired white-skinned birds for the British market during Wartime.  The Light Sussex, along with the Rhode Island Red, were the most significant commercial birds in Canada until the transition was made to modern hybrids in the mid-twentieth century. The Light Sussex is still used in the creation of some commercial hybrids.  But the Light Sussex’s status as most popular breed has long since gone and it is now found on the watch list of many livestock conservation groups, including that of Rare Breeds Canada, and what Sussex chickens remain are of limited genetic lineage.


1. Andrew Lawler, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? P. 117, Atria Books

2. Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds, p. 427, Yale University Press

3.  Correspondence with Emily Robertson of True North Hatchery

Additional Sources:The Cambridge World History of Food (by K.F. Kiple & K.C. Ornelas, Cambridge University Press); Rare Breeds Survival Trust (


The Royal Palm Turkey


“We consumers think of turkeys not as farm animals, but just another mass-produced item on a shopping list.”

(Sara Bir,’How Turkeys Got Broad, White Breasts’, Modern Farmer, November 24, 2014



Turkeys are indigenous to the southwest part of North America and Central Mexico and have spread throughout the world from there.  They were introduced to Europe via the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, and made their way back to North America by way of Britain’s colonization of New England. A hundred years ago, you would have found turkeys on most North American farms because turkeys were considered a near perfect fit for the needs of rural families. Turkeys were self-reliant foragers who could breed without human assistance, lay plenty of eggs, and raise their own young. Most importantly, they were a good source of inexpensive meat for the table.

It is not by accident that I said ‘were’, because this is no longer the case.

As with so many other rare breeds of domestic livestock, turkeys have also been victims of 20th century advances in farming, refrigeration, and transportation. Today nearly all the turkeys we consume – about ninety-nine percent, in fact – are Broad-Breasted Whites. Broad-Breasted Whites have been bred to grow extremely fast and move very little. They cannot reproduce naturally, but must be artificially inseminated because the enormous breast of the Broad-Breasted makes the bird unable to breed.

Because nearly all turkeys are the same breed, and there are few strains within that one breed, modern turkeys are the most genetically eroded of any livestock. Apart from the ubiquitous Broad-Breasted White, most other breeds of turkey are threatened with extinction. Among these endangered breeds is the Royal Palm.


Royal Palm Turkey Tom at the farm of Brent and Janet Tolhurst, St. Chrysostome, QC

The history of the Royal Palm turkey is not a long one. The breed was only recognized by the American Poultry Association in 1971. Although similarly marked turkeys have been around for centuries – one black and white variety known as the Pied or Crollwitz has existed in Europe since the 1700’s – the Royal Palm was developed in Lake Worth, Florida, on the farm of Enoch Carson in the 1920’s.

“Mr. Carson began developing the breed in the 1920s using crosses between several turkey breeds, including the Black, Narragansett, and Bronze as well as with wild turkeys. Royal Palm turkeys became a recognized breed by the American Poultry Association in 1971, decades after its inception, largely because it took so many years to stabilize the breed’s unique coloring. Although the coloring will occur accidentally in crosses, establishing a predictable lineage took quite a while.” (Countryside Daily, Nov. 4 2016)

The Royal Palm is truly beautiful. The saddle (back) of the bird is black, while the base colour of the rest of the bird is white. The white feathers end in black metallic edging giving the Royal Palm its spectacular showy appearance.


The Royal Palm’s purpose was principally as an exhibition bird; it was not intended for commercial meat production. But that is not to say that they are not good eating –they are! Although they are small in size -the hens reach a mature weight of 10lbs; the Toms weigh an average of 16lbs – the meat is flavourful and is prized by chefs.  Slow Food USA includes the Royal Palm in its Ark of Taste. Unlike most domestic turkeys, Royal Palms are active birds capable of flight. They are also good foragers who will do a good job keeping the barnyard insect population in check. While they might lack the commercial potential of other heritage turkey breeds, Royal Palm turkeys are ideal birds for a small farm due to their longevity, ability to reproduce, and thriftiness.

The breed’s status is unknown in Canada as there are no known large-scale breeders. Rare Breeds Canada estimates the Royal Palm to be critically endangered.


Sources:, The Livestock Conservancy ( , Modern Farmer Magazine (, Slow Food USA (



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