A nonrandon assortment of genes
Imagine you and your Upper Paleolithic family are walking through the woods and happen upon an abandoned litter of Grey Wolf pups (Canus lupus). Your kids instantly fall in love with the bunch and ask to bring the group home as pets. Being the good parent that you are, you acquiesce. Over the next few weeks, and as the pups grow and mature, it becomes clear that the kids have chosen favorites from among the group. The ones which are friendly, playful, and submissive are the ones the kids gravitate toward, while the ones which stand-off and are aggressive when approached are the ones your kids shy away from. Eventually, individuals belonging to the latter group wander back into the woods and two individuals belonging to the former group remain to become part of your family. Let’s assume these are male and female (and let’s ignore the potential influences of inbreeding). The two produce a large litter. Children from an adjacent encampment visit and ask whether they might have two of the pups as pets. You agree and they select what they believe to be the friendliest male and female, and off they go. These individuals have a litter and yet another group of kids asks about a pair, and so on. If the primary focus of selection remains friendly, playful, and submissive behavior, and if these traits are genetically controlled, then over time, the members of the growing canine population will become more friendly, more playful, and increasingly submissive. This tale is entirely hypothetical but it is exactly the way in which we believe groups of archaic Grey Wolves may have given rise to what we know today as the much beloved and highly domesticated dog, Canus lupus familiaris. This practice of artificial selection has been used by humans for millennia to improve the animals we raise for food, textiles, and for work. So, let’s talk about sheep, Ovis aries, and recognize the many breeds that have been developed by artificial selection and under the watchful eyes of human farmers. Joanna and I have raised Shetland Sheep since Pairodox was first established in 1989. Those of you who read this blog carefully may have picked up on a few words, phrases, or sentiments which have suggested that Joanna and I have made the decision to disperse our flock. To say that this decision has been difficult would be an understatement, for we have applied the tenets of artificial selection for more than two decades to produce the animals that now grace our pastures. I will not provide a detailed historical review but suffice it to say that our flock began with five unprepossessing animals. Now, more than four-hundred and thirty-six animals later, we care for a spinner’s flock of forty-four animals which, in my opinion, can hold its own in direct comparison with any and all registered Shetland Sheep in the country. The improvements in fleece color, crimp, and luster and in animal conformation and adherence to breed standard have resulted from a good genetic base, lots of naturally occurring variation, and a rigorous program of selection, breeding, and of culling. The dilemma Joanna and I face is how to reconcile doing the right thing with this highly nonrandom assortment of genes and parting with animals and characteristics we have known for such a long time. The Livestock Conservancy lists the Shetland as a recovering breed. Trying to find a willing and responsible someone with appropriate infrastructure to take on the entire group has proven difficult. What we have decided to do, and the strategy which has already been set in motion, is to identify a small number of folks willing to accept a handful of animals. This way our efforts are preserved and our animals will be distributed among a number of good homes. I suppose this is akin to not putting all of your eggs into one basket. The first animals to leave the farm will do so tomorrow. Wish Joanna and me luck in the aftermath of their departure. I took some ovine portraits this past weekend during a brief period of sunshine and blue sky, it rained buckets yesterday.