Heritage GeneBank was established in 2001 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 constituted 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.
Additions to the Trust’s Heritage GeneBank
The Sheep Trust, based at that time in CNAP in the University of York, directed the EU funded ‘Heritage Sheep’ from 2007-2009. One Work Programme explored the logistical and practical issues of collecting germplasm from distinct Heritage Breeds across different Member States. On completion, these resources were added to the existing bank.
The contents of the bank were further reviewed in 2016, and the ongoing quality of semen and the G1 embryo collection confirmed.
In relation to the Herdwicks, the legacy of the Sheep Trust’s activities in 2001 has been further expanded. In 2016, additional embryos from 6 Herdwick fell ewes were collected through an initiative of the Herdwick Sheep Breeder Association, in collaboration with the Herdy company and Newton Rigg College. The genebank also received additional resources of semen from 5 tups and 84 embryos collected unrelated ewes offered from a private breeder. Given the three-way ownership of these Herdwick resources in the bank, their use and any future responsibility for maintenance can be separately determined.
There is committed funding for Heritage GeneBank until 2021, a period of twenty years since its formation.