Federal researchers are on a mission to back up the genetic material of the plants and animals that the nation’s food supply depends on. A pair of ranchers in the hills of western Colorado are joining in and are trying to ensure the future of the rare Black Welsh Mountain sheep.
It’s a sunny morning at Desert Weyr, a 40-acre sheep farm outside of Paonia, Colorado.
Oogie McGuire and her husband own this farm. They raise Black Welsh Mountain sheep. They’re smaller than the white sheep most people are used to seeing. They’re solid black, and the males have curled horns.
"There are less than 10,000 worldwide," she says. "There are about 1,500 in North America. We have a small population up in Canada and a slightly larger population down here in the U.S."
Farmers in the United Kingdom and Belgium also raise this rare breed.
McGuire has been raising Black Welsh Mountain sheep for 17 years. Her flock is about 200 strong.
"They are the only all black breed of sheep in the world," she says. "They are dual purpose: bred to be both meat and wool."
Preserving Genetic Diversity
Her sheep are also a research flock for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For the past decade, two researchers from the USDA have been coming to this farm to collect genetic materials from this flock.
On this day, they came to gather ram semen.
They work for the National Animal Germplasm Program based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
"Germplasm is reproductive material," Scott Spiller, a scientist with program, says. "And that may [include] semen samples, frozen embryos, tissues samples, [and] blood."
He says the germplasm program started 1999.
"We were mandated by Congress to start to back up the nation’s animal, food and fiber genetic resources," Spiller says.
The researchers freeze the genetic material they collect from sheep and other livestock and store it in a gene repository.
Dr. Phil Purdy is an animal physiologist with the germplasm program. He says the McGuires took a tour of the repository during a livestock conference and quickly volunteered their flock.
"They were very progressive in terms of breeding," Purdy says. "They said ‘hey we need to be able to accomplish a couple of things’. We want to be back up the Black Welsh Mountain sheep genetics in the repository so that if it is ever needed in the future in the United States it’s available."
Purdy says not only does the program act as a gene bank in the event of a disaster, like a disease outbreak, but the genetic material is public domain. Producers and researchers can request samples for study or to increase the genetic diversity of their own animals.
Black Mountain Welsh sheep were imported from the U.K. in the early 70’s.
McGuire says the founding population for the breed in the U.S. was only 11 animals. So she’s working with fellow producers across the country to try and preserve the genetic diversity of the sheep’s North American population.
"We’ve become the central place so we are trying to get rams in of all these blood lines to make that we got them here so they can store them in the gene bank," she says.
McGuire sends and receives sheep from across the U.S. It’s one way to ensure that her flock and others are getting new blood.
"The genetic diversity that these sheep represent is something you can’t regain. Once you lose genetic diversity it’s gone forever," she says.
Editor's Note: This story aired on Harvest Public Media.