Conserving Rare Chicken Breeds

The Livestock Conservancy is focusing its efforts on saving rare chicken breeds—as well as other poultry and livestock—from extinction.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Josh Larios/Flickr

The Livestock Conservancy is the Seed Savers Exchange of the domestic animal world; that is, where SSE preserves rare and heirloom seeds, The Livestock Conservancy works to protect rare, heritage livestock breeds. The 40-year-old organization’s mission statement best sums up its goal: To protect endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.In partnership with farmers, chefs, foodies and consumers, environmentalists, scientists, agriculturalists, historians, and many others, The Livestock Conservancy’s preservation efforts are in the interest of the animals it serves and the bigger picture of securing our traditional agricultural system.

The Livestock Conservancy’s Work

More than 8,000 livestock breeds exist around the world, and about 1,600 of those are in danger of extinction: Only a handful of breeds are raised and used in our nation’s current factory-farming practices. As these large operations grow and family farms dwindle, we risk losing some of those traditional American livestock breeds.

In partnership with breeders, The Livestock Conservancy goes about its mission using a system with three important steps:


In this first and most dramatic step, rare breeds are found where they’ve been hiding or left unattended for many years. Some breeds are found feral, some are reported to the conservancy and others pop up in surprising ways. Often, a well-meaning citizen will discover that a neighbor or acquaintance is raising some unusual animals. Once discovered, the “new” breed is looked at critically through a lens of context to determine if it is indeed a rare breed. DNA analysis can help confirm the significance of the animal population.


Here, human collaboration, especially among breeders, is of the utmost importance. The main goal is to prevent further genetic erosion by gathering as much information about the new animal population as possible. Oral histories from the context established in the Discover step are helpful, as are written histories or pedigrees—any accurate information is valuable. Again, molecular and DNA analysis aide in the process. Then, the work falls to breeders to communicate and preserve through collaborative breeding efforts.


Once the breed is genetically secured, populations can grow. As the breed grows, so does interest in keeping or tending to it, and education is required for new breeders or farmers who want to further increase populations. Enthusiasm for the breed feeds the crucial marketing necessary for it to gain a solid foothold and not fall back into obscurity.

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Diverse Stock

Just as it is vital to protect the diversity of our plant species by saving seeds, protecting heritage livestock breeds ensures the earth’s biodiversity and the protection of our greater food system. Securing and safeguarding the genetics of these breeds is the only way they will continue to exist and flourish.

Like heirloom seeds, heritage livestock breeds have been designed for specific traits, including maternal instincts and fertility, resistance to diseases, adaptability to certain climates or regions, and self-sufficiency, such as the Buckeye, a great foraging breed. In this same vein, many heritage breeds are suited to being raised in sustainable farming systems, such as on pasture, holistically bred and organically maintained. Preserving these breeds preserves parts of American history and subculture, as well.

Birds & Beyond

Although chickens and other poultry, including ducks, geese and turkeys, make up a large portion of The Livestock Conservancy’s efforts, there are many domestic animal species on the Conservation Priority List, falling into one of five categories:

  • Critical: fewer than 200 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 2,000.
  • Threatened: Fewer than 1,000 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 5,000.
  • Watch: Fewer than 2,500 annual registrations in the United States and estimated global population less than 10,000. Also included are breeds that present genetic or numerical concerns or have a limited geographic distribution.
  • Recovering: Breeds that were once listed in another category and have exceeded Watch category numbers but are still in need of monitoring.
  • Study: Breeds that are of genetic interest but either lack definition or lack genetic or historical documentation.

The CPL currently list more than 80 different breeds of poultry, including:

  • more than 50 breeds of chickens, such as Nankins (Critical), Russian Orloffs (Threatened), Dorkings (Watch) and Australorps (Recovering);
  • 14 ducks, such as Runners (Recovering);
  • 12 geese, such as Chinese (Watch); and
  • 8 turkeys, such as Bourbon Reds (Watch)

Livestock beside poultry include cattle, donkeys, goats, horses, pigs, rabbits and sheep.

Citizen Support Needed

As a nonprofit organization, The Livestock Conservancy relies on sponsors, tax-deductible donations, membership fees, income from their online shop and other avenues of revenue to continue conservation efforts. Different levels of sponsorship come with a long list of benefits. Through their website, you can donate as little as $10 to conservation efforts. Once signed up as a member, you can receive their newsletter as well. Volunteer opportunities are also available, through field work and administrative duties, website assistance, public event help, and in other ways. You can request a volunteer application through their website.

Engage your children in conservation efforts by joining agricultural clubs, following The Livestock Conservancy on social media, tuning in to the Conservancy’s podcast on Heritage Breeds and by visiting the Noah’s Ark Today education program through its online curriculum.

Heritage breeds—poultry and otherwise—are gaining popularity and interest from breeders and casual keepers alike, and people interested in knowing where their food comes from. It’s exciting to know that an organization such as The Livestock Conservancy is spearheading the movement and gaining momentum with support from around the nation.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of Chickens.

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