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National Collection conserves colonial sheep

The ARS National Animal Germplasm Program is helping preserve heirloom sheep breeds, such as Hog Island, kept at Mount Vernon. (ARS photo by Stephen Ausmus.)

What do the Agricultural Research Service, George Washington's Mount Vernon home, and Colonial Williamsburg, Va., have in common? Here's a hint: The answer has four legs and a wooly tail.

Both the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which operates Washington's estate, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which operates Colonial Williamsburg, maintain flocks of heirloom sheep. The rare and unique genetic traits of these sheep are being preserved by ARS scientists at the National Animal Germplasm Program in Fort Collins, Colo.

NAGP facilities house germplasm for sheep, cattle, chickens, pigs, aquatic animals and other livestock. The animal collection contains more than 480,000 samples, many donated by livestock producers throughout the United States.

NAGP has singled out two rare breeds of sheep--Hog Island and Leicester Longwool--for genetic preservation. Both Hog Island and Leicester Longwool sheep descended from breeds raised during the colonial era, before the advent of modern breeding techniques. They are smaller than modern breeds, with less meat and coarser wool, but they have characteristics that newer breeds lack.

Today, fewer than 200 registered Hog Island sheep remain, 54 of which currently live at Mount Vernon. In December 2008, NAGP geneticist Harvey Blackburn collected and cryopreserved 253 semen samples from 10 Hog Island sheep for the NAGP collection.

Although Blackburn and his colleagues have not yet acquired germplasm from the Leicester Longwool flock in Colonial Williamsburg, they did obtain 92 blood samples from the flock, with the help of Virginia State University professor Stephan Wildeus.

These rare breeds have regional and historical value, but conserving them is particularly important because of their genetic uniqueness.

The sheep germplasm collection was initially set in motion by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, a nonprofit organization established in 1977 with the goal of protecting more than 150 historic breeds of livestock.

Read more about this research in the March 2009 issue of Agricultural Research magazine, available online at www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/mar09/sheep0309.htm.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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