Heritage Hogs

  • Barbara Schaefer thinks locally raised heritage meat makes economic and environmental sense. (Photo by Lucy Martin)

Variety isn’t just the spice of life. You could say it is life. And you can’t have variety without lots and lots of genes.

Farmers have spent thousands of years developing livestock that do well in different conditions.

Modern agriculture usually concentrates on just a few breeds that maximize profit. But a lot of people don’t want to see all the valuable genes in older breeds just disappear.

Lucy Martin visited a farmer who says the future needs to include heirlooms from the past:

Transcript

Variety isn’t just the spice of life. You could say it is life. And you can’t have variety without lots and lots of genes.

Farmers have spent thousands of years developing livestock that do well in different conditions.

Modern agriculture usually concentrates on just a few breeds that maximize profit. But a lot of people don’t want to see all the valuable genes in older breeds just disappear.

Lucy Martin visited a farmer who says the future needs to include heirlooms from the past.

(Schaefer entering barn: “Watch your head, it’s a little mucky in here…”)

It’s a bright winter day, inside a classic red barn in Southern Ontario. We’re admiring docile animals whose name says it all: Large Black Pig. They look fine. Even though this pig is listed as critically endangered.

Schaefer: Sometimes you’ll be standing here and you think there are no piglets and suddenly one rises out of the straw!

(Sound of contented grunting)

Barbara Schaefer used live in Toronto. Until a few years ago, her career revolved around managing environmental projects. But when she got laid off, she decided to put theory into practice.

Schaefer: I can’t save the polar bear, but I can save this breed. How many things can you say that about? And that’s why what I’m doing now is 200 times more relevant.

What she’s doing now, is weaving different environmental threads together. Preserving the genetic diversity of rare livestock. Putting marginal land to higher use. Trying to revitalize rural economies. Offering an alternative to factory farming.

Nearly all commercial pork across North America comes from just a few main breeds, usually reared in confinement systems. A lot of science goes into maximizing production. But Schaefer doesn’t think that’s the whole picture.

Schaefer: They’re packed in fairly close, they don’t get the benefit of being outside in the sunlight. They have a artificial concrete floor, which for them, is a horror. Because these guys think with their nose, they want to be turning things up all the time and there’s no opportunity for that.

(Sounds of distant tractor and more pigs grunting)

In the barn yard, I mingle with small herds of thigh-high, curious pigs as they as they mill about, soaking up sun. Some amble over to near-by pastures for naps inside cosy hay huts.

Schaefer’s customers include local restaurants and ‘foodies’, people who like to cook and eat.

Fans admire heritage breeds because these animals were bred to thrive in the specific conditions of small-scale, local agriculture.

Lawrence: They’re rustic, they’re hardy, they’re often good mothers.

Ted Lawrence has spent years on this cause with Rare Breeds Canada. Some really admire the animals. And then there’s the whole ‘insurance’ argument: odd breeds have genes worth keeping. As base stock for even newer breeds, to adapt to changes in climate, or to survive some epidemic.

Lawrence: Food security, that will turn heads more quickly than saying we have to preserve the genetic diversity of minor breeds.

If these animals are special, why slaughter them?

Lawrence: That is actually a slogan that has been used in Great Britain: ‘We must eat them to save them’. It sounds counter-intuitive but what’s the purpose of breeding them if you can’t make any money, if you can’t sell them? Then the genetics will not continue. The breed will go extinct.

(kitchen clatter and music playing at Murray Street Restaurant)

Chef Steve Mitton co-owns a restaurant in Ottawa which features Schaefer’s pork. He’d hate to see old breeds die out.

Mitton: I mean, I get entire animals in and break them down from head to toe, and we use every last bit of it. The yield of the Large Black, in particular, is outstanding.

Mitton says more and more people care about where their food comes from and how animals are treated.

Mitton: I just want to broaden their horizons, open people’s minds a little bit, so they know that this is out there. And it’s just as good as commercial pork.

Most meat eaters have no idea what breed of animal ends up on their plate. But making sure there are lots of breeds around can help keep those plates full, and tasty.

For the Environment Report, I’m Lucy Martin in Ontario.

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Swan Song of the Mute Swans

  • Wildlife officials want to eliminate the European mute swan so it doesn't compete with native birds. (Photo by Christina Shockley)

Controversy over what to do about a non-native swan has taken an
unusual turn. One state that was going to kill all of its mute swans
will now give some of them a short lease on life. It’s going to let
people “adopt” the wild birds. Christina Shockley has the story:

Transcript

Controversy over what to do about a non-native swan has taken an
unusual turn. One state that was going to kill all of its mute swans
will now give some of them a short lease on life. It’s going to let
people “adopt” the wild birds. Christina Shockley has the story:


Mute swans are large, gorgeous, white birds. They were brought to the
U.S. from Europe in the 1800s to beautify parks and estates. The swans
were meant to be kept in captivity, but they escaped, and since, the
numbers have skyrocketed along the Great Lakes and Eastern seaboard.


So, like in other areas, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
has come up with a plan. The state wants to shoot all the mute swans,
but this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people.


Pat Kujawa is one of them. Kujawa is sitting in her home on Phantom
Lake. The area is home to about 85% of Wisconsin’s mute swans. Each
summer for several years, Kujawa’s family has bonded with the mute
swans. She sees the birds as neighbors on the lake.


She holds a photo album full of pictures of the swans and her kids as
they grew up:


“We have pictures of our son Kyle swimming with them, and he’s probably
about I would say 8 or 9 years old, and again other pictures like that,
showing the parents standing back, and all of the babies coming up and
taking bread right out of Kyle’s hands. Sort of suggests that perhaps
the DNR characterization of them being aggressive is somewhat
misguided, or at least it’s what they want people to hear.”


Wildlife officials say the mute swans ARE aggressive, especially during
the nesting and breeding season. They say the mutes push native birds
out of their habitat and upset aquatic life by uprooting vegetation
along the shore.


Officials also say the mute swan was posing a problem as the state
worked to re-introduce the native trumpeter swan. Their numbers have
just recovered.


But because of protests from people like Kujawa, the state government
says it will temporarily modify its mute swan eradication plan. What
they’re doing might seem a little unusual. The state is going to let
people in three counties “adopt,” or sponsor, as many mute swans as they
want.


Erin Celello is from the Department of Natural Resources. She says
people won’t have to bring the birds in the house to live like a cat or
dog, but she says they will have to get the swans fixed:


“They will be able to apply for a permit, to capture a swan from the
wild, and they will be required to neuter that swan, and re-release
that swan into the wild.”


Celello says that will keep the birds from breeding, and the state
won’t shoot the birds when they see them:


“We felt that this is kind of a win-win for everyone. As an agency, we
are still upholding our share of what has become a national mute swan
control policy, while at the same time, allowing for citizens who have
formed emotional attachments to these birds, to keep those birds
around, and keep them on their landscape.”


Celello says the state’s goal is still to kill all of the mute swans. She
says officials will shoot the mutes that aren’t wearing neck tags that
show the birds have been spayed or neutered. And obviously the swans
that have the surgery won’t be having babies. One vet says the spaying
or neutering procedure could cost between 150 and 250 dollars per bird,
and Grace Graham says that might be difficult for her to afford.
Graham is Pat Kujawa’s neighbor on Phantom Lake.


The 70-year-old retired school teacher has been swimming with, and
feeding, the mute swans for years. She says the mute swans should just
be left alone and that it’s wrong to eliminate a species. But she
knows, ultimately, if it’s impossible for the birds to reproduce, the
swans will be gone at some point:


“I don’t want to even think about our lake not having any mute swans on
it. All this summer, the last time I swam with them before the water
got cold I thought, Grace, this is the last time you’re going to get to
do this. Last time you fed them, last time you do all of these things.
It’s kind of like a death thing.”


For the Environment Report, I’m Christina Shockley.

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Barnyard Animal Extinctions

  • Milking Devon cattle are rare domestic breeds from an earlier day, some dating back to the 18th century. The animals hold genetic information that some people think is too valuable to lose. (Photo by Lester Graham)

When you think of endangered species, farm animals might not top the list. But some types of farm animals are in danger of going extinct.
Certain breeds of common barnyard creatures are no longer considered commercially viable, and are being allowed to die off. But as the GLRC’s Chris Lehman reports, there’s an effort to preserve some rare varieties of
livestock:

Transcript

When you think of endangered species, farm animals might not top the list. But some
types of farm animals are in danger of going extinct. Certain breeds of common barnyard
creatures are no longer considered commercially viable, and are being allowed to die off.
But as the GLRC’s Chris Lehman reports, there’s an effort to preserve some rare varieties
of livestock:


When you buy a pound of ground beef or a pack of chicken legs, you probably don’t
think about what kind of cow or chicken the meat came from. And in most stores,
you don’t have a choice. Beef is beef and chicken is chicken.


Of course, there’s many different kinds of cows and chickens, but most farmers stick with
just a handful of types. They prefer animals that are specially bred to produce more meat
in less time.


That’s all well and good if your motive is profit.


But some people think the move towards designer farm animals is risky.
Jerome Johnson is executive director of Garfield Farm Museum.


(Sound of turkeys gobbling)


Johnson says breeds like these Narragansett turkeys carry genetic traits that could be
desirable in the future. They don’t require as much food, for instance. That could be an
attractive feature as costs continue to rise:


“Some of the high-producing, high-yielding animals today, they may require a lot of
input. In other words, a lot of feed, more expense since so many things are derived from
petroleum, from the diesel fuel that powers the tractors to the production of fertilizer
and the like, and chemicals for herbicides and all… that as the cost of that goes up, it may
actually be cheaper to raise a different type of animal, that doesn’t require that much.”


Johnson also says some common poultry breeds get sick more easily. That’s part of the
risk farmers take when they choose meatier birds. Normally that might not be a problem,
but if Avian flu spreads to the US, some of the older breeds might carry genes that could
resist the disease. If those breeds disappear, that genetic information would be lost.


But some farmers choose rare livestock breeds for completely different reasons.


(Sound of baby chicks)


Scott Lehr and his family raise several varieties of pure-bred poultry, sheep, and goats on
their northern Illinois farm. These chicks are just a few weeks old…


(Sound of baby chicks)


“These are all pure-bred birds. These are birds that have been around a long time. Some
of the breeds that are in there, there’s Bantam Brown Leghorns, Bantam White Leghorns.”


Some of the poultry breeds are so rare and exotic they’re practically collector’s items.
Lehr’s son enters them in competitions. But the animals on their farm aren’t just for
showing off. Scott says they use the wool from their herd of Border Cheviot sheep for a
craft studio they opened in a nearby town:


“There’s quite a bit of demand growing for handspun wool and the rising interest in the
hand arts, if you will… knitting and spinning and weaving and those kinds of things… are
really beginning to come into, I guess, the consciousness of the American public in many
ways. It’s evolving beyond a cottage industry.”


And the wool of rare breeds like the Border Cheviot sheep is popular among people who want handspun wool.


(Sound of Johnson calling to giant pig, “Hey, buddy, how ya doin’?”)


Back at the Garfield Farm Museum, Jerome Johnson offers a handful of grass to a 700
pound Berkshire hog. This Berkshire is different from the variety of pig with the same
name that’s relatively common today. Johnson says these old-style Berkshires have a
different nose and more white hair than the modern Berkshire. They also tend to be fatter,
which used to be a more desirable trait.


The museum’s pair of old-style Berkshires are literally a dying breed. Johnson says the
boar isn’t fertile anymore:


“They were the last breeding pair that we knew of. These were once quite common but
now are quite rare. And we maybe have found a boar that is fertile that is up in
Wisconsin that was brought in from England here a couple years ago that we could try
crossing with our sow to see if we can preserve some of these genetics.”


(Sound of pigs)


Advocates of rare livestock breeds say the animals can be healthier and sometimes tastier
than the kinds raised on large commercial farms. And although you won’t find many
farm animals on the endangered species list, they could have important benefits for future
farmers.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris Lehman.

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Mud Snail Slimes Into Great Lakes

A foreign invasive species is spreading to new areas. It’s a snail that could spread in huge numbers and compete with fish for food. The GLRC’s Mike Simonson reports:

Transcript

A foreign invasive species is spreading to new areas. It’s a snail that could
spread in huge numbers and compete with fish for food. The GLRC’s Mike
Simonson reports:


The New Zealand Mudsnail has made its way to Lake Superior. It had already
been identified in Lake Ontario. These snails become dense on a river or lake
bottom. Minnesota Seagrant Aquatic Species expert Doug Jensen says it’s like
having half a million in the space of a bathtub. They can squeeze out bottom
dwelling organisms that fish eat. Jensen says native fish eat New Zealand
Mudsnails, but the fish don’t digest them:


“They can pass through the guts of fish and potentially waterfowl and then
survive that situation and then breed in a new location, where ever they’re
deposited. They reproduce asexually. They produce clones of themselves; they
don’t need a male to establish a new colony.”


The snails are the latest on a long list of invasive species that have likely been
carried in by foreign ships.


For the GLRC, I’m Mike Simonson.

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Is Goby Die Off Good News?

Officials say a disease might be killing an invasive species of fish in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The GLRC’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

Officials say a disease might be killing an invasive species of fish in Lake
Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The GLRC’s David Sommerstein
reports.

Where the lake and the river meet, people have been finding dead round
gobies.

“Dozens in some cases, hundreds of dead gobies that have been washing up on shores.”

Steve Litwiler is with New York’s Department of Environmental
Conservation. He says a change in water temperature or a poison could
cause the die-off, but initial sampling suggests some kind of disease.

“Is it a disease that could potentially affect other fish? Fortunately right
now the only fish that are dying appear to be the round gobies.”

If only the round gobies die, this could be a good news story. Round gobies
hitched a ride from Europe in the ballast of foreign freighters. They’ve
displaced native species across the Great Lakes by breeding faster and eating
other fishes’ eggs and young.

For the GLRC, I’m David Sommerstein.

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Will Chestnut Trees Make a Comeback?

  • Due to a blight, American chestnuts are now rare in the Midwest. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

In the first half of the last century, there were millions of American chestnut trees ranging from the Eastern seaboard to the Upper Midwest. Now, there are virtually none… because a fungus killed them. A campaign is being launched to bring back a blight-resistant version of the chestnut… and it’s being planted here in the Midwest. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen
reports:

Transcript

In the first half of the last century, there were millions of
American chestnut trees ranging from the Eastern seaboard to the Upper
Midwest. Now, there are virtually none because a fungus killed them.
A campaign is being launched to bring back a blight-resistant version of
the chestnut, and it’s being planted here in the Midwest. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen reports:


Sprouts from diseased chestnut trees don’t get the killer fungus until
they’re 4 inches tall, so researchers like Brian McCarthy of Ohio
University have had plenty of raw material to breed a new version of the
chestnut tree.


“Fifteen-sixteenths pure American chestnut and one-sixteenth Chinese
chestnut. And that one-sixteenth of the genome confers blight resistance.”


Ohio is now planting hundreds of the new seedlings on top of abandoned strip
mines. McCarthy believes they may help reclaim the land.


“It’s not that chestnuts like this kind of soil. It’s that probably that chestnuts can
tolerate this type of soil better than other broadleaf tree species can.”


McCarthy hopes that a century from now, the blight-resistant chestnut
trees will once again be prominent in forests, providing high-quality
lumber and food for wildlife.


For the GLRC, I’m Bill Cohen in Columbus.

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Birders Keep an Eye Out for Vagrants

  • Some hummingbirds have been showing up in places where they're not normally found. Cornell University is trying to recruit birders to help them collect sightings of birds outside their range. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bird lovers nationwide are being asked to report “vagrants” in their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner explains:

Transcript

Bird lovers nationwide are being asked to report “vagrants” in their neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner explains:


Bird researchers at Cornell University have a special request this winter: they’re asking their nationwide network of bird watchers to report vagrants – birds that show up in places they’re not normally found. David Bonter is head of Project FeederWatch at Cornell.


He says birds that drift outside their normal range can indicate a natural shift in bird distribution or it could be a sign there’s a problem with the species. Bonter says in recent years, there have been a lot of reports of hummingbirds that breed west of the Rocky Mountains showing up at feeders in the Southeast and Midwest.


“These are birds that, historically, have never been in Eastern North America and they’re showing up here at feeders in the winter time, when historically, they’d be wintering in Mexico or points south.”


Bonter says calls bird vagrancy a biological dead end, because most don’t find mates in their new environment.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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Audubon Society Cheers Congress for Bird Law

  • The European Starling, an invasive species, has been pushing woodpeckers out of their nests and preventing them from breeding. The Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act will help reduce populations of non-native bird species. (Photo by Louis Rock)

The National Audubon Society is praising Congress for strengthening protections for American migratory birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

The National Audubon Society is praising Congress for strengthening protections for American migratory birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:


The U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed in 1917 to protect native birds, such as the woodpecker, the Baltimore Oriole, and the American Black Duck. But a court ruling earlier this year changed the law, by extending protections to all birds, including non-native species. National Audubon Society spokesman John Bianchi says invasive species like the European Starling are pushing out native birds.


“That is hard for people to understand, but the equation there is that pushing out means killing. A European Starling pushing a woodpecker out of its nest means that that woodpecker will not breed that year.”


As part of a recent spending bill, Congress amended the law to once again only protect native migratory birds. That provides millions of dollars a year for protection efforts, which can include trapping and removing non-native birds, or killing them.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

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Rats Scurrying to the Suburbs

  • Life in the suburbs is idyllic to some people... (Photo by Bon Searle)

Unusually heavy rains this summer are partly to blame
for rats pouring out of the sewers in droves all over the country, and the nasty vermin are relocating to some of the most pristine
neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce
Kryszak explains what caused the rat invasion and
what’s being done to evict them:

Transcript

Unusually heavy rains this summer are partly to blame for rats pouring out of the sewers
in droves all over the country. And the nasty vermin are relocating to some of the most
pristine neighborhoods. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Joyce Kryszak explains what
caused the rat invasion and what’s being done to evict them:


Piercing blue autumn skies and billowing white clouds drift across the chimneys of this modest,
but perfectly manicured suburb. There aren’t even many leaves crunching under foot. Town workers
have already come and vacuumed them all away. But there’s a nasty little secret scurrying under
the porches and behind the garden sheds in this Western New York town. County Sanitation Chief
Peter Tripi takes us for a peek.


“Can you see the teeth marks here? That’s actually rat gnaw marks. And there’s the garbage bag.
And that’s what we found when we went to this property.”


Now, you might be thinking that we trudged through derelict grass and scattered debris to find
these rat clues. Nope. This is a gorgeous, manicured yard – with not a blade of grass out of
place. But Tripi says rats aren’t choosy.


“You would never think by looking side to side that there would be a rat problem in this yard.
Doesn’t matter what neighborhood you live in, or how much money you’ve got. There’s no difference.
They just like your food.”


And you’d be surprised where rats can find food. A garbage can left even briefly uncovered, a
neglected bird feeder, uhhh… dog feces… and even a compost pile.


“Absolutely. This is a rat condo. It’s a grass-clipping compost pile that basically housed rats
to go a hundred yard radius all the way around to the different houses.”


Tripi says rats had to get creative with their housing. A summer of extremely heavy rains drove
the out of the sewers and into some previously rat-free neighborhoods. And with the West Nile
virus killing off millions of birds, the rats have less competition for the food they’re finding
above ground. The consequence is a virtual rat infestation all the way from New York and Illinois
to Virginia, Michigan and L.A. In Kenmore, there have been four thousand rat complaints – nearly
double last year.


(Sound of garbage truck)


Of course, none of this is news to the garbage collectors. They see the problem up close and
personal. Twenty-year veteran Louie Tadaro says this past summer is the worst he’s ever seen.


“Across the street there’s an alleyway and there had to be like ten of them in there, And we
started chasing them with garbage cans trying to kill them, but we couldn’t. By the time we
got there they just split.”


The problem is, they don’t split for long. Vector Control Chief Tripi says now that the rats
have relocated from the sewers to upscale accommodations, they kind of like it.


“And what that means is that they want to live with us. They want to be near our garbage and
our bird feeders. The problem with that is that rats carry diseases.”


We all know about stuff like typhus and the bubonic plague. But there are emerging diseases,
such as a pet-killer called Leptospiroris. It’s killing dogs all across the country. Tripi
says they need to get rid of the rats before the disease starts spreading to humans. So, his
team is taking the rats on, one yard at a time.


Tripi and his Vector control team set rat traps, they fill bait boxes with poison, and – when
they have to – they issue citations to residents who don’t heed the town’s new “rat control rules.” Covered garbage cans only. Clear away all brush. Clean up scattered bird seed and dog feces. Slowly, the rules seem to be working.


(sound of Tripi looking into rat trap)


Still Tripi says it’s mostly educational warfare. And he says now – heading into winter – is the
best time to nip the problem. If the rats get cozy, not only will they stay, they will multiply.
Fully nourished, one adult rat can breed up to sixty baby rats a year.


“The adult rat can live on a little bit of food, but he can’t procreate unless he has a lot of
food source. And they can’t live through the winter unless they’re warm and fattened up.”


So now is the time to – quite literally – put a lid on it. Keep those garbage cans covered, unless
you want some uninvited furry guests this winter, and many, many more come spring.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Joyce Kryszak.

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