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  • Writer's pictureDale Webster

Quest for safe pony began life-long mission to save rare livestock breeds

ABOVE: Katy Brown has devoted her life to saving rare livestock breeds. Picture: DALE WEBSTER

AFTER Katy Brown notched up her fourth broken bone at the tender age of 10, her mum decided that if she couldn’t buy her daughter a safe pony she had better breed one.

Norma Champion, an English immigrant with no equine experience before coming to Australia, had always liked the idea of learning to ride, seeing it as something Australians did.

In pursuit for the perfect child’s mount, she settled on a hardy British breed, The Highland, and in 1974 established the Senlac Pony Stud at Menzies Creek south-east of Melbourne.

To everyone’s relief – none the least Katy herself – the move did bring an end to the regular trips to the emergency department. But it was the choice of the Highland that set in motion an association that would become a life’s work for the young animal lover – saving livestock breeds facing extinction.

“About 20 years ago I got talking to a woman in our local supermarket who turned out to be the then director of the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia,” Katy explained.

“She had noticed my Highland Pony windcheater and asked if I would be interested in being the trust’s horse coordinator – I’ve been involved with them ever since.”

The trust’s mission is to help conserve livestock breeds that are facing extinction since the advent of mechanisation and intensive farming practices.

These include cattle, sheep, goat, pig and poultry breeds that have lost favour for production reasons, or animals whose use has been superseded by machines – such as horses. The Clydesdale is probably the most notable of the working horse breeds that have been under threat, but are fortunately now listed as recovering. The Highland Pony – once sought after for its strength, smaller size and temperament – is still on the endangered list however, with less than 85 registered females in the Australian stud book.

ABOVE: For Katy Brown, ponies and pigs are part of her everyday existence. Picture: DALE WEBSTER

The preservation of the Highland Pony breed continues for Katy, who is now based on a farm about 50km north-east of Bendigo at Corop.

Her involvement with the trust soon led to a wider interest in old pig breeds and she is now has one of the last remaining Tamworth pig herds in the world. She also breeds Hampshires, which are at critically low numbers in Australia, as well as two other “at risk” breeds – Large Blacks and Wessex Saddlebacks.

For someone who, as a kid, would have her heart broken every time she lost one of her considerable number of pets, it has been a big leap from being the little girl who smuggled a piglet home from NSW under her jumper to a fulltime pork producer.

“The harsh reality is that to preserve the rare breeds of livestock there needs to be a commercial purpose for breeding programs,” Katy said.

“The old-timers tell you that only one in 200 pigs is worth keeping as a breeder so when you’re working with such a small gene pool you have to be diligent in your selection process because it’s going to have such a big influence on what is to come.

“My interest is preserving the breeds so unless an animal meets breed standard there is no excuse but to cull it. The meat is a means to an end but it takes a long, long time to come to terms with taking perfectly healthy animals to die on a weekly basis.

“I have had trouble making the switch from a pet owner to someone who grows animals for food.

“It’s a bloody big mind-shift – I still cry sometimes when I go to the abattoirs and that's after 20 years.

“As much as you become practical, I don't think you ever harden up to it – it's something that you just do, not something you enjoy doing.”

According the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, at least one domestic livestock breed has disappeared every month around the world for the past 18 years.

Of the 7745 cattle, goat, pig, horse and poultry breeds that survive, 26 per cent are at risk of extinction.

By the time Katy took on her first herd of Tamworth pigs, there were just 50 sows and 20 boars left in the world and she was pretty much their last hope for survival in Australia. (Prince Charles stepped in to help save the breed in the UK.) She secured another five Tamworth herds over time that would have been slaughtered had she not been able to give them a home.

ABOVE: Tamworths - saved from extinction.

She says it was basically their beautiful, golden hides that brought about their undoing.

“Like all coloured pigs, they fell out of favour in the 1960s when the first intensive piggeries came into Australia. Commercial industry didn’t like them because the skin was harder to clean and people didn’t like to see coloured hair in their meat. They also didn’t have a quick enough growth rate or produce enough babies for those environments – it just didn’t suit them.”

It is hard to fathom that breeds notable for hardiness, genetic soundness, temperament and mothering ability are dying out because they possess those very traits but that is why Katy says it is even more important to preserve the genetics for the future because these are the breeds that are able to withstand environmental stress.

“The heritage breeds have what is called a thrift gene,” she said.

“That means when times are good, the body lays down fat, no matter what stage of growth, because it might need that for tough times. That is why they are such good doers. They can often subsist on the minimal quality and quantity of food compared with animals that have been bred for high production.

“Generally they are slower to start – their weaning weight might be less – but the integrity of growing slowly means their ligaments keep up with their bones. They have better strength and structure to have a long and productive life. It's not unusual to have rare breed pigs that are still having litters at 10-years-old. For anyone growing their own food or for their local community there are a lot of positives to that.”

And Katy, who once owned her own butcher shop, says the quality of the meat is “indisputable”.

“The slower-growing the animal the finer texture of the meat. Because it has a good covering of fat you can age it, which means it will be tenderer and have more flavour. And because you have good fat you end up with really good crackling. Chefs fall over themselves to get to it.”

Even though government red tape, the closure of more and more domestic abattoirs and the lack of processors for rare breed products such as strong wool is making the farming of rare breed livestock in Australia harder every day, a world without her animals is, for Katy, unimaginable.

“I'm not interested in mass producing animals and making heaps of money,” she said.

“For me it's about being a custodian of the breed long enough to get them to the next person.

“There is a responsibility to not let something die out on my watch.”

ABOVE: Highland ponies at Katy Brown's property near Bendigo. Picture: DALE WEBSTER

Further information on rare livestock breeds, including horses, can be found at the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia website.

This story was originally published in Bendigo Magazine.

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