The small herd of San Clemente Island goats on Sherri Talbot’s Windsor homestead is among the roughly 1,700 of these goats left in the world.
But that’s not what originally drew Talbot to the highly endangered breed. She got San Clementes because they don’t stink.
At least, they don’t stink as much as other goat breeds, which can have a very pungent and not pleasant amount of body odor. They also like to stick close to home.
“San Clementes don’t have the same unique smell as other goats,” Talbot said. “I did not want to have goats that smelled so much they would annoy my neighbors or would keep getting loose and into people’s gardens.”
Things took off from there, and today Talbot and her husband operate Saffron and Honey Homestead where in addition to the goats they raise Soay sheep, faverolle and standard cochin chickens, American buff geese and American chinchilla rabbits.
All are listed as endangered, rare or threatened according to The Livestock Conservancy, a national organization that tracks and promotes farm animals in danger of extinction.The animals on Talbot’s homestead are also heritage or primitive breeds, meaning they have been around hundreds and even thousands of years and possess many of the same traits as their ancient ancestors.
Each of the endangered livestock breeds on Saffron and Honey Homestead number less than 2,000 worldwide and have fallen out of favor as modern agriculture skewed toward a few highly specialized, mass-produced breeds that tend to be more prone to disease and less hardy overall than the heritage breeds. Talbot sees the loss of these older breeds as a direct threat to Maine’s food supply.
Modern, commercial agriculture relies on only a few breeds, each bred to be good for one thing, such as egg, meat or fiber production. If something wipes out one of those breeds, it can be a disaster, Talbot said.
“When you mass produce anything there are going to be some flaws,” Talbot said. “All it takes is one mistake in biosecurity and suddenly you have nothing.”
She points to the recent news around avian flu as the perfect example of why these ancient and hardier breeds need to be saved and bred on small farms that can protect them from disease exposure.
“Look at something like avian flu where you can have a single virus wipe out hundreds of thousands of birds at a single time,” she said.
Of the roughly 6,000 livestock breeds worldwide, 300 have gone extinct in the last 15 years and 1,350 are in danger of dying out completely, according to the conservancy.
The Livestock Conservancy looks at the heavy reliance on a single widely bred animal or bird as being as risky as a single stock in an investment portfolio.
The conservancy points to the potato famine of the 1800s when the single potato variety grown in Ireland — the Lumper — was wiped out by blight, causing the death of nearly 1 million people.
Breeds like the ones on Talbot’s homestead don’t grow as fast or as large as commercial breeds, so it can take longer to recoup the monetary investment if they are being raised for food and profit. But that pales in comparison to the benefits of these older breeds, according to Talbot.
The American Chinchilla rabbits, for example, were a breed popularized in the 1920s when chinchilla coats were in fashion. For those who could not afford the garment, a coat made from these rabbits was the next best thing.
The anti-fur movement of the 1980s caused the American chinchilla rabbits to plummet in popularity to the point that they almost went extinct, and were considered critically endangered just a few years ago.
These days there are only several thousand American chinchilla rabbits in the world but those numbers are slowly climbing because they make great pets and are good meat-producing animals.
They are also incredibly cute. Talbot’s rabbit colony currently includes a half dozen or so baby bunnies ranging in ages from hours to several weeks old.
Like many of the older, established breeds of farm animals, these rabbits don’t need any help from humans when it comes to giving birth or rearing their young, another selling point for Talbot.
In a nearby pasture there are several female members of the Soay sheep herd ready to give birth and will likely do so with no help from Talbot, though she is ready to step in if the mom is having a difficult time.
There are fewer than 1,500 Soay sheep in the world today. They come from the St. Kilda Islands in the United Kingdom and are a primitive breed that produce a wool that does not need shearing. Instead, a typical Soay sheep naturally sheds off about 2 pounds of wool a year.
Nearby in the poultry enclosure, the American buff geese — among the 500 in the country — take their jobs as guard geese very seriously. Talbot said the geese have fended off egg-stealing raccoons and on one memorable occasion, a hunting osprey. They are also prolific egg-layers.
Raising endangered livestock takes no more work than other livestock, according to Talbot. In fact, it may be easier as they tend to be more self-reliant and disease resistant.
But it can take a bit of effort to find animals, given there are so few of them around.
“Yeah, they can be hard to find,” she said. “But once you have them established on your homestead or farm, I find them easier to raise.”