Indigenous domestic animals

Indigenous domesticated animals or native breeds have evolved in a partnership between man and nature.

Compared to purposefully developed production breeds, there is a large intrapopulation diversity in the conformation of native breeds. It is important to ensure that native breeds retain the traits that people have once valued as well as to uphold the practice of consuming their produce. The populations of native breeds should first be preserved, not bred.

In Estonia, the list of native breeds includes the Estonian horse, cattle, sheep, goat, chicken, dark bee, rabbit, cat and dog. Unfortunately, Estonian pigs have gone extinct. There are so few grey cows left that a major rescue operation is needed to preserve them for future generations. The Estonian horse, Estonian cattle and some landrace sheep are confirmed breeds in Estonia. Other native breeds have survived in populations.

The useful landrace sheep. As in other countries bordering the Baltic Sea, a landrace sheep was bred in Estonia. The landrace sheep were raised mainly for their meat, wool and skin, but also for their milk, bones, horns and manure. The inventories conducted between 2000 and 2010 revealed that most Estonian landrace sheep farmers were elderly people and that even today, sheep are still being farmed in the traditional way. During the period these surveys were carried out, the gene pool was more diverse. Today, there is only one confirmed breed of landrace sheep – the Kihnu native sheep. Despite this, landrace sheep who have been found from different places are still voluntarily raised in a traditional way.

The Estonian goat is the poor man’s cattle. Estonian landrace goats have adapted well to the local natural conditions. They produce meat, milk and skin as well as small amounts of wool. So far, the Estonian goat has not been studied. In order to make sure the Estonian goat is preserved in the future, an inventory as well as a DNA analysis is needed.

The independent Estonian chicken. The Estonian chicken has adapted well to local natural conditions. It can find its own food and knows how to hide itself in trees or bushes. There are two chicken species native to Estonia – regular-sized chickens and smaller bantam chickens. Local chickens have been found in Vormsi, Lääne County, Rapla County, Viru County and Võru County. There are definitely many more Estonian chicken species, but no inventory covering the entire country has been carried out and we have only heard reports of random findings.

The friendly Estonian landrace rabbit. In 2015, rabbits were discovered in the Kihelkonna borough in Saaremaa. The rabbits looked very similar to the Gotland rabbit, an endangered rabbit species whose preservation and breeding began in the 1970s. Since indigenous domestic animals vary greatly in all countries, it is likely that previous rabbit breeds in Estonia also looked similar to the Gotland rabbit. Currently, there is only one person helping to conserve the Estonian landrace rabbit in Harju County. The species have not been researched and an inventory has not been done, meaning that the number of Estonian landrace rabbits is unknown.

The busy Estonian dark bee. When walking around in Southern Estonia, you may still see an old beehive and spot bees that look similar to Northern European dark bees. These bees have returned to live in the forest and can survive independently in the wild. Even though the Estonian dark bee has bred with other bee breeds, its initial genes have still remained. There are some experienced beekeepers who prefer to keep dark bees for multiple reasons. Firstly, a dark bee can survive through the winter and is great at producing honey. It collects nectar even if there’s light rain or a drop in temperature. The species has not been researched and an inventory has not been drawn up, so the total population is unknown.

What next? There is a shortage of people who are willing to keep native breeds. The bigger the animal, the more difficult it is to preserve the breed. Landrace animals also produce less than developed breeds. Hence, people might think that it is pointless to keep old indigenous domestic animals. Additionally, there are not enough people or institutions who are interested in researching the genetically diverse, yet small populations of domestic animals. If a domestic animal belongs to one of the endangered breeds recognised in Estonia, the owner can apply for a subsidy. However, the populations of several unregistered native breeds are so small that they can only be preserved through a national conservation programme. If we wish to preserve the genetic diversity of domestic animals, we must set up practical measures or structures to support this goal. Estonia lacks the skills to preserve small populations of domestic animals. Therefore, the country should work together with other Northern European countries that have successfully managed to preserve their native breeds.

See the full article in the April 2020 issue of Eesti Loodus (Estonian Nature), pp. 24-27


 Annika Michelson, lecturer at Häme University of Applied Science and board member of NGO Maadjas;
Imbi Jäetma, hostess of Sae farm, conservator of the Estonian native sheep and chicken, board member of NGO Maadjas
Editor: Reigo Roasto