Federal researchers are tasked with safeguarding the genetic material of plants and animals on which the country’s food supply depends. Two ranchers from the hills of western Colorado join us in trying to secure the future of the rare Black Welsh Mountain sheep.
It’s a sunny morning at Desert Weyr, a 40-acre sheep farm outside of Paonia, Colorado.
Oogie McGuire and her husband own this farm. They are raising Black Welsh Mountain sheep. They are smaller than the white sheep that most people are used to seeing. They are solid black and the males have curled horns.
“There are less than 10,000 in the world,” she said. “There are about 1,500 in North America. We have a small population in Canada and a slightly larger population here in the United States. ”
Farmers in the UK and Belgium also breed this rare breed.
McGuire has been raising Black Welsh Mountain sheep for 17 years. His herd is around 200 people.
“They are the only all-black breed of sheep in the world,” she says. “They have a dual purpose: raised to be both meat and wool.”
Preserving genetic diversity
His sheep are also a research herd for the US Department of Agriculture.
Over the past decade, two USDA researchers have come to this farm to collect genetic material from this herd.
That day they came to collect ram semen.
They work for the National Animal Germplasm Program based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Germplasm is reproductive material,” says Scott Spiller, a scientist in the program. “And that can [include] semen samples, frozen embryos, tissue samples, [and] some blood.”
He says the germplasm program started in 1999.
“We have been mandated by Congress to begin safeguarding the country’s animal, food and fiber genetic resources,” Spiller said.
Researchers freeze genetic material they collect from sheep and other livestock and store it in a gene repository.
Dr. Phil Purdy is an Animal Physiologist in the Genetic Material Program. He says the McGuire’s visited the depot at a breeding conference and quickly offered their herd.
“They were very progressive in terms of breeding,” Purdy says. “They said, ‘Hey, we have to be able to accomplish some things.’ We want to save the genetics of the Black Welsh Mountain sheep in the repository so that, if ever it is needed in the future in the United States, it is available. “
Purdy says the program not only acts as a gene bank in times of disaster, like an epidemic, but the genetic material is in the public domain. Producers and researchers can request samples for study or to increase the genetic diversity of their own animals.
Black Mountain Welsh sheep were imported from the UK in the early 1970s.
McGuire says the breed’s founding population in the United States was only 11 animals. She is therefore working with other producers across the country to try to preserve the genetic diversity of the sheep population in North America.
“We’ve become the central place, so we’re trying to get rams from all of these blood lines to bring them here so they can store them in the gene bank,” she says.
McGuire sends and receives sheep from all over the United States. It is a way to ensure that his flock and the others receive new blood.
“The genetic diversity that these sheep represent is something that you cannot regain. Once you lose genetic diversity, it is gone forever,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This story aired on Harvest Public Media.