Conserving livestock biodiversity
Conserving niche breeds

 Preserving an unparalleled level of genetic diversity

Due to its history and geographical make-up, France is the home of a great variety of ruminant breeds and boasts an unparalleled level of genetic diversity. Notably, there are about thirty indigenous cattle races that include a very broad range of animals of all types and with a variety of different traits.

Yet almost half of these breeds almost went extinct as a result of the tremendous development of the agriculture sector in France over the second half of the 20th century. Some breeds were specialized in meat or dairy production, some were cross-bred with foreign breeds or combined into one, others were abandoned or even prohibited.

As soon as the late 1960s, the risk of definitive losses to the genetic heritage was obvious: some breeds only numbered a few dozen specimens.

 Preservation operations launched in the 1970s

With financial support from the Ministry for Agriculture, conservation programmes were launched in 1976 for the Bretonne Pie-Noire and the Flemish breeds, and then in 1977 for the Villard de Lans and Ferrandais breeds which were officially extinct.

Since then, these conservation programmes have been further developed: they now target 15 niche breeds. Most were initiated by the Institut de l’Elevage, which was approved as the selection organization for 12 of them in 2008.

For more than 30 years, the Institut has been coordinating and partnering targeted operations by breeding sector actors, without which these breeds would have disappeared: livestock breeders and breeder societies, semen production centres, regional parcs and preserves, Races de France [French breeds association], the INRA [French national institute for agronomics research], the National CryoBank, etc.

 Identification, localisation and characterization of breeds, herds and animals

Identification, localisation and characterization of present breeds, herds and animals form the foundation of all conservation programmes launched since the 1970s and 1980s.

For most identified breeds, some cows were over fifteen years old at the time (or even twenty years in some cases). Their birth dated back to a time when these breeds were not yet in decline and their head counts were still relatively high.

Through their diverse origins, their history and their age, the few dozen heifers located for each race were sufficient to provide a guarantee of genetic variability and quality.

The situation was more tricky for the bulls, which had not been kept as long as the heifers, or had even been replaced by AI. For each breed, there were only a few left, but the programme made it possible to collect semen from several of them in AI centres.

Furthermore, the programme was able to locate frozen semen for some races that had participated in AI schemes in the early days of semen freezing (around 1962-63).

 Fieldwork and support initiatives for breeder groups

The technical conservation initiatives for niche breeds are the following:

  • continuous updating of the national inventory (animals and farms), in which each heifer and each bull are important for the future (completeness principle).
  • estimating breed purity and the relevance of each animal with regard to conservation goals.
  • locating the best heifers and using them to create new generations of bulls in particular, so that their semen can be preserved in AI centres; their complementarity or mutual coherence must enable normal reproduction of the population over the long term.
  • collecting semen to constitute a quality stock that is significant in size as well as varied, and making this stock available to livestock breeders. Bulls are selected on traditional types, for which all lines are preserved. There is no breed reorientation.
  • technical monitoring and individual breeder information.
  • networking breeders of each breed, support initiatives for the collective dynamic of breeds and their technical representation on a national level.

 Significant and encouraging results

The 15 breeds combined only amount to 8,500 adult cows, but that is 8 times more than 30 years ago. However, the wealth of this genetic preserve lies not in the number of cows, but rather their diversity. It is better to have 150 cows from 6 different genetic lines rather than 1,000 genetically similar specimens.


Key figures

  • 15 cattle breeds under on-farm conservation programmes
  • 1 341 adult cows in 1990
  • 8 509 adult cows in en 2010
  • 1 207 farms