Last update: January 14, 2011 10:32:27 AM E-mail Print




M.A. Snyman

Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, Private Bag X529, Middelburg (EC), 5900

E-mail: Gretha Snyman



The aim of the South African Biological Reserve for Small Stock is to promote and facilitate the improvement and conservation of South African sheep and goat breeds.

While many people understand the importance of biodiversity in the wild, few are aware of the need for preserving diversity in domestic livestock.  With every extinction of a farm animal breed we risk losing genetic traits important to our agricultural future or to medical progress (Dohner, 2001).  Especially in developing countries, the introduction of exotic breeds and their spread through indiscriminate crossbreeding is a major reason for loss of local, indigenous breeds (FAO, 1998; Köhler-Rollefson, 2001).

At an international workshop on Options and Strategies for the Conservation of Farm Animal Genetic Resources held in Montpellier, France, in November 2005, the following were identified by workshop participants as some of the primary justifications for conserving farm animal genetic resources:

The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (United Nations, 1992) emphasises that natural resources are the property of individual countries. It ties this right to a national responsibility for environmental conservation, placing most decision-making at the national level.

The three objectives of the Convention are:

As a party to the treaty, South Africa is obliged to ensure that the agreement is implemented in accordance with its objectives.  The state is also required to develop national strategies, plans or programs, or adapt existing ones, to address the provisions of the Convention, and to integrate the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity into sectoral and cross-sectoral plans, programs and policies.  South Africa's response to this requirement is contained within the SA White Paper on Biodiversity (2002), which articulates the country's policy and strategy towards achieving the objectives of the Convention.

The two aspects of improvement and conservation are not mutually exclusive and should be considered as complimentary to each other and should be easily and beneficially linked.  There is a need for the involvement of research institutions in rare breed conservation in all countries, but particularly in areas where there is large scale upgrading or replacement of breeds underway.  In these areas, universities and research institutions should be involved in maintaining purebred populations of indigenous breeds as control populations and for research purposes.  Through research, immediate uses for some indigenous breeds have been identified, for example, the prolific Finnish Landrace sheep and the disease resistant cattle of Africa.

There are numerous conservation methods or strategies available for the conservation and preservation of species subjected to various grades of endangerment.  These could be categorised into ex situ and in situ methods (Henson, 1992).  Live conservation efforts enable breeds to be properly evaluated, monitored and used in the present changing agro-economic climate as well as being available for future farmers and livestock breeders.  Cryogenic methods allow for animal genetic resource material to be suspended, unchanged, for long periods of time.  South Africa has no active plan for the conservation of our many unique indigenous small stock breeds.  Some of these breeds, such as the Namaqua Afrikaner and Nguni sheep breeds, could be considered as endangered and conservation plans should be implemented sooner rather than later.  Furthermore, conservation of biodiversity of our entire sheep and goat population is also a priority that should be attended to.

The Livestock Improvement Act and the Livestock Improvement Schemes of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are key elements in the genetic improvement of the country’s livestock population.  However, South Africa still lags behind the world with regard to genomic research.  This type of research is viewed as critical to ensure that livestock improvement in South Africa stay on par with the rest of the world and to ensure that South Africa remains a world leader in animal breeding and breed development.  Three of the major challenges that face South Africa’s research institutions and universities are: firstly, the scarcity of research (reference) herds with suitable pedigree and phenotypic data, secondly, the long period of time that such reference herds have to be kept to collect the required data before the actual genomic research can start and thirdly, the large areas of land that are required to keep such reference herds.  On the other hand, most provincial departments of agriculture do have research stations with livestock herds that can be utilised for the establishment of a national research resource for focused genomic research by all research institutions in the country.

The establishment of the South African Biological Reserve for Small Stock will address the recommendations in the report on the State of the Country’s Animal Genetic Resources (2007) on the ex situ and in situ conservation of our small stock resources, as well as the mentioned challenges with regard to genomic research in the country.



A project aimed at the establishment of a DNA bank for Angora goats was initiated in January 2005 as a collaborative effort between Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute (GADI), the University of Pretoria (UP), the Angora goat producers and the mohair industry.  A workshop was held on 17 and 18 October 2006 in Port Elizabeth to discuss the practical implementation, implications and requirements of a biological bank.  Technical people involved with Angora goat research in South Africa, especially genomic research, attended the workshop.  Researchers from the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Stellenbosch, the Department of Animal Science at the University of Pretoria, the Livestock business division: Animal Production of the ARC and Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute, attended the workshop, which was funded by Mohair South Africa.

The recommendations of this workshop were to:

Following the workshop in 2006, it was decided to include other breeds in the blood and DNA bank as well.  As an outcome of two workshops on conservation of indigenous livestock, namely a workshop hosted by the Northern Cape Department of Agriculture and Land Reform during May 2007 at the Vaalharts Experimental Station, focussing on the endangered Namaqua Afrikaner sheep breed and a second workshop held as a result of the first, during November 2007 in Pretoria, it was decided to address the conservation issue as well.  The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has consequently implemented the following program: Establishment of the South African Biological Reserve for Small Stock research and conservation.

The DNA laboratory and central storage facility for the biological reserve for South African small stock breeds have already been established at GADI and are fully operational.



The layout of this program is summarised in Table 1. The three projects (AP10/1, AP10/2 and AP10/3) respectively deal with the establishment and maintenance of:

The objectives of this program are to:


Table 1. Layout of the program


Establishment of the South African Biological Reserve for Small Stock research and conservation


Establishment and maintenance of live herds of sheep and goat breeds in South Africa


Cryopreservation bank for conservation of biodiversity of sheep and goat breeds in South Africa


Blood and DNA bank for genomic research in sheep and goat breeds in South Africa




AP10/1/1: Establishment and maintenance of live herds of the endangered Namaqua Afrikaner sheep breed in South Africa

AP10/2/1: Establishment and maintenance of a cryopreservation bank for Namaqua Afrikaner sheep

AP10/3/1: Maintenance of a biological bank for Angora goats in South Africa

AP10/1/2: Establishment and maintenance of live herds of Angora goats in South Africa


AP10/3/2: Maintenance of a biological bank for Namaqua Afrikaner sheep in South Africa

AP10/1/3: Maintenance of two Merino herds as resource herds for research and reference herds for a biological bank for Merino sheep in South Africa


AP10/3/3: Maintenance of a biological bank for Merino sheep in South Africa

AP10/1/4: Maintenance of an Afrino herd as resource for research and as reference herd for a biological bank for Afrino sheep in South Africa


AP10/3/4: Maintenance of a biological bank for Afrino sheep in South Africa



AP10/3/5: Maintenance of a biological bank for Boer goats in South Africa



AP10/3/6: Maintenance of a biological bank for Dohne Merino sheep in South Africa


Policy and ownership of samples

A protocol to provide guidelines for the operation of the bank is being drafted.  The following will be incorporated with regard to ownership of the samples and availability of resources: Blood samples collected from the animals in the participating flocks will be donated to the Biological bank and the blood and isolated DNA samples will then be the property of the Biological bank.  The phenotypic data collected on the animals will also be part of the Biological bank, but the Biological bank and the original owners of the animals (for example the Eastern Cape Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the case of the Jansenville Angora goats) will share ownership.  Both parties will keep phenotypic data electronically.

As stipulated in the aim and objectives of the Biological bank project, the blood, DNA and data in the bank are available to qualifying researchers in South Africa for genomic research studies.  Before qualifying researchers could obtain any material from the Biological bank, a detailed project protocol has to be submitted to a technical advisory committee.  This committee will comprise two officials from GADI, representing the DAFF, two officials from the institution who donated the blood samples and at least two specialists in the field pertaining to the subject of the proposed project.  The committee will evaluate the project protocol and decide whether the applicant may obtain resources from the bank for his/her project.  The possibility of involvement in the project of officials from the institution that donated the blood samples could be discussed with the qualifying researcher and his/her institution.  Genetic results of genomic research on specific animals have to come back to the Biological bank to form part of this ever-expanding resource.  Any possible property rights will be dealt with on a project basis among the parties involved with the specific project.



AP10/1: Live herds of animals

For the operation of a viable biological bank, it is necessary to have access to herds of live animals.  The first aim of this project is the establishment and maintenance of various herds as reference herds for the biological bank and as resource for other research work.  The second aim of this project is the conservation of live herds of endangered indigenous small stock breeds.

Currently there are four sub-projects already running under this project, namely for Namaqua Afrikaner sheep, Angora goats, Merino sheep and Afrino sheep.  For the Namaqua Afrikaner sheep, work is in progress for the establishment of more conservation herds.  Three private farmers, who are owners of Namaqua Afrikaner sheep, have been identified in the Carnarvon, Calvinia and Barkly East districts and they are already part of the project.  A few other people and institutions are also interested in becoming part of the conservation project.

AP10/2: Cryopreservation bank

At the moment there is only one sub-project under this project, namely for the endangered Namaqua Afrikaner sheep.  A total number of 281 Namaqua Afrikaner embryos were cryopreserved to date.

AP10/3: Blood and DNA bank

Five projects for breeds participating in the blood and DNA bank project (Afrino, Merino, Dohne Merino and Namaqua Afrikaner sheep and Angora goats) are underway.  A project for the Boer goats at Adelaide Experimental Station was also drafted and will be implemented soon. 

The following herds are part of the DNA and blood bank projects:

The following Angora goat producers are participating in the Angora blood and DNA bank project:

When a specific herd first become part of the blood and DNA bank, blood samples are collected from all available animals in the herd.  Thereafter, blood samples are annually collected from all new progeny in each herd.  Blood samples are collected into 10 ml EDTA vacutainer blood collection tubes.  After collection, the blood samples are divided into four aliquots of 2 ml blood each into cryo-vials.  These samples are frozen at minus 80 °C for future use.  The numbers of sheep and Angora goats sampled to date are summarised in Table 2.  Blood samples from a total of 16 683 animals have been collected and stored to date.


Table 2. Number of blood samples collected to date for Angora goats and Afrino, Merino, Namaqua Afrikaner and Dohne Merino sheep


Number of animals











Angora goats











Afrino sheep











Merino sheep











Namaqua sheep











Dohne Merino sheep























Production and reproduction data

Without phenotypic production and reproduction data available, a biological bank has limited use.  For most genomic research work, DNA samples as well as production data are required.  Pedigrees, as well as all production and reproduction data are therefore also recorded on the participating herds and stored in the bank.



There are already four research projects that obtained blood and DNA samples, as well as the relevant phenotypic data from the bank (Table 3).


Table 3. Projects using samples and data from the blood and DNA bank

Project title

Institution / Study

Developing a genetic marker for the identification of more hardy Angora goats

University of Stellenbosch

Doctoral study

QTL for fibre traits in South African Angora goats

University of Pretoria

Doctoral study

Application of microsatellite markers for parentage verification in South African Angora goats

University of Pretoria

Masters study

Genetic and phenotypic characterisation of Namaqua Afrikaner sheep


University of Pretoria

Masters study



The following have been achieved since the establishment of the South African Biological Reserve for Small Stock at Grootfontein:



The following persons / institutions are acknowledged for their contribution to this project:



Dohner, J.V., 2001. The encyclopedia of historic and endangered livestock and poultry breeds. Yale University Press.

FAO, 1998. Secondary guidelines for development of national farm animal genetic resources management plans: management of small populations at risk. Rome. ( Accessed February 2008).

Henson, E.L., 1992. In situ conservation of livestock and poultry. FAO Animal and Health Paper, No 99.

Köhler-Rollefson, I., 2001.  Implementing the Convention on Biodiversity with respect to domestic animal diversity.  Food without Farmers? German NGO Forum Environment & Development, Bonn, Germany, pp. 15-22.

Options and Strategies for the Conservation of Farm Animal Genetic Resources, 2005. Accessed February 2008. 

SA White Paper on Biodiversity, 2002. /Biodiversity/Contents.htm. Accessed February 2008.

United Nations, 1992. United Nations Environment Program Convention on Biological Diversity. Accessed February 2008.



Grootfontein Agric 11 (1)