National Collection Conserves Colonial
Sheep By Laura
McGinnis March 2, 2009
What do the Agricultural Research
Service (ARS), 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
Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) 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
NAGP has singled out two rare breeds of sheepHog Island and
Leicester Longwoolfor 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
Today, fewer than 200 registered Hog Island sheep remain, 54 of which
currently live at Mount Vernon. In December 2008, NAGP geneticist
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.
about this research in the March 2009 issue of Agricultural Research
ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture.