In recent years, a small group of highly specialized livestock breeds has been promoted throughout the planet, which has led to the replacement or abandonment of indigenous breeds.

An image of merino sheep in an extensive system in the Leonese mountains.

Humanity is currently facing – and will do so for decades to come – with the challenge of feeding the entire population. At the same time, the impact that food systems have on nature must be reduced.

The agrarian intensification In recent decades it has posed a threat to wild species and their habitats. But it has also affected agrobiodiversity: the biological diversity relevant to food, agriculture and agroecosystems.

All of the above has sparked intense debate, both academic and political, on how the territory should be managed.

Native breeds, threatened

Livestock breeds are a prominent element of livestock agrobiodiversity; they are considered its unit of management and conservation. They are groups of domestic animals with similar physical and productive characteristics and heritable, which allow them to be differentiated from other groups of animals.

These races have been (and still are) developed by human practices. They guarantee the variety of food sources of animal origin, are the livelihood of many rural communities and provide numerous services for human well-being (such as fibers and other by-products).

These animals are considered a global public good by the World Bank. They also play an important role in the functioning of agroecosystems, depending on how systems and practices are developed of production.

For example, domestic herbivores influence the structure of vegetation, the animal diversity that depends on it and, therefore, the dynamics of communities. On the other hand, livestock droppings contribute to the availability of nutrients and their circulation in the agroecosystem. In general, cattle helps to configure more heterogeneous landscapes and complex.

Throughout the 20th century, and especially in its second half, the industrialization and improvement of productive and reproductive techniques (such as artificial insemination) have promoted the diffusion throughout the planet of a small group of races, highly specialized. Usually, in conjunction with the expansion of intensive livestock systems, managed under controlled conditions.

The phenomenon has led to the replacement, crossing or abandonment of indigenous livestock breeds (those adapted locally). FAO indicates that only 10% of local livestock breeds (indigenous to certain territories) are not threatened.

Iberian pigs resting.Elena Velado.

Conserve agrobiodiversity

To conserve biodiversity, it is necessary not only protected areas, but also wide areas that have a management that respects the needs of wildlife. It is very common to find high levels of biodiversity in the agrarian landscapes that surround the protected areas.

In Europe, 50% of all species live in agroecosystems. The Red List of Habitats shows that 53% of all threatened habitats are grasses. The disappearance of indigenous livestock breeds and extensive livestock systems is having consequences for the conservation of biodiversity.

In Spain, livestock has had great historical importance, both economically, socially and culturally. The diversity of environments and cultures in the territory has favored the appearance and recognition of more than 150 autochthonous cattle breeds. Many, such as the black merino sheep, the tudanca cow or the Andalusian ass, are currently in danger of extinction.

The diversity of human uses has also affected the distribution of wild diversity in our country. However, to date the relationship between wildlife and the diversity of livestock breeds has hardly been studied, although it could be of great interest for their conservation.

Sheep of the Merina breed, a black variety, are in danger of extinction.National Association of Merino Cattle Breeders / MAPA

Diversity distribution

In a recently published work we have studied how the distribution of native species of wild vertebrates and indigenous livestock breeds is related in peninsular Spain. We have considered 128 bovine, equine, swine, sheep and goat breeds.

Our goal is to improve understanding of the relationship between wild and livestock diversity. At the same time, it seems important to us to identify areas where integrated conservation strategies can be applied with positive effects on both types of diversity.

In general, our results show that those areas that host a greater diversity of indigenous breeds also show a greater diversity of wild vertebrates. The positive relationships found are mediated by the characteristic climatic gradients of the peninsular territory.

A possible explanation for this relationship between wild and livestock diversity could have to do with the role that breeds and production systems play in the functioning and structure of agroecosystems. However, more research is needed to investigate the mechanisms underlying this relationship.

Landscape management

Our results show that, when it comes to extensive and sustainable livestock uses, and in contexts where these uses have generated a large number of indigenous breeds, livestock could be a favorable activity to maintain wild biodiversity.

Implementing integrated conservation actions could benefit not only indigenous livestock breeds, but also wildlife, especially in areas with a long history of agricultural and livestock uses. All of this would make it possible to promote the conservation of biodiversity beyond protected areas, including livestock landscapes.

Our work opens up new research questions. For example: can these results be extrapolated to other areas with different histories of human use? In any case, they contribute to improving the sustainability of livestock systems and the conservation of biodiversity.

* Elena Velado Alonso, postdoctoral researcher in the area of ​​Ecology, University of Alcalá

** This article was originally published on The Conversation.