Heritage GeneBank was established during the height of the Foot & Mouth epidemic in response to pleas of help from sheep breeders who feared their breeds and valued bloodlines were at threat of extinction from the foot and mouth disease (FMD) epidemic. Many of these heritage breeds were not numerically scarce, but at threat due to their very localised regional distribution in the United Kingdom. The breeds, such as the Herdwicks, Lonks and Rough Fells suffered heavy losses when the disease reached their homelands. The FMD epidemic highlighted the considerable vulnerability both of these breeds and the breeders whose economic survival depends on breeding and farming sheep.
Heritage GeneBank took action to protect those breeds and bloodlines that were at threat of extinction. Funding from Garfield Weston Foundation, Gatsby Charitable Foundation, Countryside Agency, and MAFF / DEFRA enabled a group of 8 academics with relevant scientific and veterinary expertise to go out and take germplasm (semen & embryos) from those breeds that were at risk.
Germplasm from the Herdwick, Rough Fell, Lonk, Dalesbred, Portland, Lincoln Longwool, and Whitefaced Woodland was taken and frozen in liquid nitrogen. This constitutes the first stages of a national genebank for sheep in the UK.
FMD demonstrated the great risk facing regional breeds – not numerically scarce, often commercially farmed, but highly restricted to a single geographical area.
Given the experiences of 2001, and the intrinsic qualities and importance of these sheep breeds to the heritage of the UK, the scientists involved in setting up Heritage GeneBank made the decision to continue their commitment and form a new charity, The Sheep Trust.