Sometimes I sit back, close my eyes and wonder what my ancestors saw when they first arrived on the shores of Atlantic Canada.
Sometimes, it’s not that hard to imagine because I’ve been on the shores of all four provinces, swam and boated in their deep waters and walked along their rocky shores. Warm and cold sea breezes have flicked my hair and sprayed salty droplets into my mouth.
Though my eyes are closed to envision the New World, my ancestors would have had their eyes wide open, taking in every sight of their new home. The trees, the rocks and hills are something concrete to see and have been captured in many photographs. I can add these details to my family history to give others a sense of what my family might have seen more than a hundred and seventy years ago.
Farm animals, on the other hand, are not as easy to imagine. We all have a picture in our minds of what a sheep, a cow, a chicken and a goat look like, but have we ever stopped to wonder what these animals - the breeds brought from the home country - looked like? Do we know their names? Would we be surprised to learn many breeds of livestock that were the life line for our ancestors are on the endangered list or extinct?
Heritage breeds - as they’ve become known - take longer to grow than other breeds so were not chosen by commercial producers. Breeds that grew fast and produced large quantities of eggs, milk and/or meat became the prized animals.
The oldest known chicken breed is the Dorking. The white-egg layer was introduced to England by the Romans and appears in a book written by Columella, a Roman writer living in the era of Julius Caesar. He described the bird as having five toes instead of the usual four. The chicken gets its name from Dorking, England. It has been cross bred with other chickens to create new breeds such as the Sussex.
The Dorking is a dual purpose fowl which means our ancestors would have raised them for eggs as well as for meat. They are hardy to our cold climate, disease resistant and are great forages; that’s three more great reasons our ancestors would have prized this bird. The down side is that they grow slowly. Slow growing is frowned upon by today’s consumers who want everything now, so this chicken - and about 70 other breeds popular 100 years ago - is on the endangered list.
Unfortunately, chickens are not the only livestock falling prey to the demand for fast growing animals. Domesticated sheep, cattle, goats and ducks are also threatened. Only a small number of breeds for each animal control the market, providing a limited selection of gene diversity our ancestors couldn’t have imagined.
But all is not lost. Home breeders are raising heritage animals so generations to come will be able to view first-hand the livestock our ancestors prized and brought with them to Canada.
Diane Lynn Tibert is a freelance writer based in central Nova Scotia. She has recently added a few heritage breeds of chickens and ducks to her backyard. She hopes to see heritage sheep and goats grazing in her pasture this summer. Submit a query. It’s free! 1787 Highway 2, Milford, Hants County, NS, B0N 1Y0; or visit The Family Attic, home to Roots to the Past: http://www.thefamilyattic.info/Roots.html