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Keywords:

  • breeds;
  • conservation genetics;
  • genetic diversity;
  • livestock

Abstract

For about 10 000 years, farmers have been managing cattle, sheep, and goats in a sustainable way, leading to animals that are well adapted to the local conditions. About 200 years ago, the situation started to change dramatically, with the rise of the concept of breed. All animals from the same breed began to be selected for the same phenotypic characteristics, and reproduction among breeds was seriously reduced. This corresponded to a strong fragmentation of the initial populations. A few decades ago, the selection pressures were increased again in order to further improve productivity, without enough emphasis on the preservation of the overall genetic diversity. The efficiency of modern selection methods successfully increased the production, but with a dramatic loss of genetic variability. Many industrial breeds now suffer from inbreeding, with effective population sizes falling below 50. With the development of these industrial breeds came economic pressure on farmers to abandon their traditional breeds, and many of these have recently become extinct as a result. This means that genetic resources in cattle, sheep, and goats are highly endangered, particularly in developed countries. It is therefore important to take measures that promote a sustainable management of these genetic resources; first, by in situ preservation of endangered breeds; second, by using selection programmes to restore the genetic diversity of industrial breeds; and finally, by protecting the wild relatives that might provide useful genetic resources.