Hackney horses at risk but native goats thriving in the UK

While hundreds of Hackney horses once elegantly clip-clopped around London pulling carriages, the breed is now dying out because that mode of transport is no longer used.

The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) annual watchlist has highlighted the breed as at risk because there are just 31 breeding females left in the UK.

Native goat breeds, however, are doing particularly well and have even become a popular pet. Farmers are also trialling older English goat breeds for a more sustainable way to produce milk and meat.

Each year, conservationists behind the RBST Watchlist track the number of animals in each native breed. They focus on ensuring the future of domestic breeds, pointing out that many of these are now part of the country’s landscape and important for biodiversity.

Hackney horse numbers have fallen below 50, which is set as a threshold for concern by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The breed, which already had very low numbers, has seen further decline over the past year, with just 31 females producing registered progeny from only 12 breeders. This compares with more than 300 breeding females registered in 2011.

Christopher Price, the chief executive of RBST, said: “Unlike many of our native equines they don’t have a contemporary use – many [other breeds] can be used in forestry work and that sort of thing. For most, carriage-pulling is more of a hobby. People should keep them because they are part of our biodiversity, part of our history.

“The UN charter of biodiversity imposes a need to sustain both native and kept breeds. Farmed and wild animals have an equal conservation imperative. We can sustain this population but far better if we can get more people keeping, using and registering them.”

However, Price was keen to note that many breeds of cattle and goat were thriving because of the changing nature of farming. While in recent decades continental breeds, which grow to huge sizes when given supplementary feed and warm housing, have been the norm, native breeds that need less food and warmth to thrive are becoming more popular.

Although there is an “element of pets and novelty” in keeping goat breeds including Old English, Bagot and Guernsey, many are being kept for their meat and milk by farmers because they need little food and shelter.

Price explained: “As farming is changing with subsidies going, they are surviving by diversifying and creating a niche product. It’s hard to keep high-input breeds with subsidies going and people are looking more for low-input species. And goats are pretty low-input as they don’t need all the supplementary feed and vet bills that many continental breeds need. Our native breeds were bred to thrive in farming systems that we had at the start of the century – more low environmental impact and low input.”

Other breeds doing well include Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies, which are becoming popular for use in rewilding projects, as well as native species of cattle.