Coggeshall Farm Museum is part of a small network of organizations that helps to ensure the sustainability of critically endangered rare breeds.
The American Livestock Breed Conservancy standard for “critically endangered” is fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and a global population below 2,000.
Before the 18th century, farmers generally bred animals based on desirable traits, not by bloodline. As a result, people chose their best quality breeding stock based on what was available, hoping to get the best overall, multi-purpose animal.
This resulted in “native types” as opposed to “breeds,” as we now recognize them. In the mid-18th century, people began breeding based on bloodline to “improve” a breed by magnifying a specific desirable trait. In some cases, cows were bred to their own offspring to get an animal that specializes in milk production or another trait.
Most tenant or small-scale farmers could not afford a pure breed, so the mixed/all-purpose native types remained common into the early 19th century. In the 20th century, that changed rapidly. New technology and changes in farming techniques made specialized breeds more desirable and available. Higher production rates of specialized breeds translated into greater profits.
Thus, it no longer was seen as desirable to have an “all purpose” animal. Many “native” or “landrace” types were became extinct or threatened.
In an effort to authentically portray the life of Rhode Island's salt marsh farmers in the late 18th century, Coggeshall has made a commitment to raising heritage breed animals that most closely represent the native types which would have been present on a tenant farm like Coggeshall at the time. We are proud to be a part of the community of farmers helping to preserve these endangered and wonderful animals.
For more information on heritage breeds, visit our friends at the SVF Foundation.
We choose current breeds of livestock that are most similar to now likely-extinct “native” types of cows. The American Milking Devon, related to the Devon cow, closely resembles the “red” cows common to Bristol and surrounding area in the late 18th century. Governor William Bradford mentioned the “great red cowe” [sic] arriving on the Jacob in 1625.
Named breeds did not exist in the 1600s, so we cannot be certain this "red" cow was a forerunner of the Devon cow. The Devon society does, however, trace the lineage of the breed back to this cow. They were once a multi-purpose animal (milk, meat, work). Devons were more of a native type until they were “improved” around 1850.
In the 1950s, the Devon Society entered the beef specialist market. Some members wanted to keep the triple-purpose breed going, so they split off and formed the American Milking Devon Cattle Association; the two are now considered separate breeds.
Our Gulf Coast Native sheep descended from sheep brought over by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. They were developed in isolation by natural selection and not “improved” by selective breeding. Although popular for hundreds of years, they were usurped in the 19th century by sheep bred primarily for meat. They have a natural genetic resistance to parasites; as a result, some breeders are now trying to cross Gulf Coast sheep with meat breeds to get the best of both. Gulf Coast Sheep are remain critically endangered.
Narragansett turkeys descend from wild turkeys and domestic turkeys brought by European colonists in the 1600s. The domestic turkeys may have descended from turkeys brought from Mexico to Europe by the Spanish. Narragansetts were not recognized as a “breed” until 1874.
We are crossing varieties to mimic the appearance of an average 1790s chicken, since the original type no longer exists. Our stock includes Dominiques, which are ancestors of the barred rock (watch list), English Game Fowl (critical), Colored Dorking/red dorking (threatened), and Speckled Sussex (recovering).
Modern farming requires high-yield, specialized animals to meet the current high demand for meat and milk. Before the Industrail REvolution, however, animals and plants were much more genetically diverse and varied. Today, we have bred specific animals for specific purposes: Holstein cows for milk, Cornish Cross chickens for meat, and so on. Because of this specialized breeding, some diversity has been lost.
Consider this: If you took all the Holsteins in the world that were genetically identical and combined them, only 13 Holsteins would exist. This could be dangerous. Like the Potato Famine, lack of diversity presents a threat to the species — theirs and ours.