Of English Shepherds and Landrace Conservation

In this brief essay, I will describe the genetic organization of a landrace breed, and I will compare it to the closed nucleus system used by most standardized breeds.  I will touch on the surface of four possible conservation strategies for a landrace breed, and finally, I will conclude with my personal experience in breeding to preserve a subpopulation within the English Shepherd breed.

A primary difference between a landrace and a standardized breed is genetic organization.  Most standardized breeds are organized in a closed nucleus system, forming a skyscraper-like arrangement of tiers where genetic material passes only in one direction.  An elite base tier of competition-winning dogs is heavily used for production.  The middle or multiplier tier brings in replacement stock, usually males from the elite tier, and saves its own replacement stock, usually females.  The commercial tier buys males from the multiplier and elite tiers. The overall flow of genetic material is from the bottom to the top.  Over time, the genetic variability of the elite tier declines, and the breed comes to rest on a continuously diminishing base. [1]Sponenberg, D. Phillip, Jeannette Beranger, and Alison Martin. “Managing Breeds Chapter 5, Breeds as Genetic Pools: Variability and Predictability.” In Managing Breeds for a Secure Future: … Continue reading

The genetic organization of a landrace is markedly different from most standardized breeds.  A landrace is more like a short two-story building.[2]Sponenberg, op. cit.   Early on in its development, each subpopulation is mostly isolated from the others.  Genetic similarities in a landrace derive from founder effects[3]Founder effect describes the phenomenon whereby a population descends from a few distinct founders and cannot contain any genetic material not originally contained in those founders and consistency in the selection environments.  A landrace will usually have multi-strain composites supported by the foundation strains.   In the landrace model, it is easy to see why it is important to persist distinct foundation strains to ensure overall genetic diversity for the landrace.  A well-managed landrace keeps subpopulations intact to line-cross as needed.  A poorly managed landrace loses distinct subpopulations through unchecked line-crossing, and thusly loses genetic variation.

Conservational efforts frequently make the false assumption that the closed nucleus system is typical of all breeds. As a result, important subpopulations of landrace breeds get lost.[4]Sponenberg, op.cit.   While definitions of the terms “strain” and “bloodline” vary, most people use the terms synonymously.  Terminology aside, it is reasonable to assume that four or more generations of isolation from other groups result in a level of genetic distinction that might be qualified as a subpopulation.   The low, broad building structure of a landraces’ genetic organization can be more difficult to conserve than a standardized breed because it is difficult to locate and sample each strain.  The ideal strategy in a landrace would be to maintain foundation strains and composite strains separately.   

Here are four strategies that can be undertaken to conserve a landrace:

  1. Maintain foundation strains and composite strains separately.
  2. Maintain a uniform composite of the founding strains.  This approach will result in decline as interrelatedness increases.
  3. Add small amounts of composite-strains back into the foundation strains, selecting composites that are phenotypically similar to the strain in question.
  4. Combine all strains, quickly subdivide, and then maintain subpopulation separately while strain characteristics emerge.

All these strategies except number two require that the transfer of animals between subpopulations be closely monitored.  This fact requires a level of intervention that can be difficult to achieve in a loosely managed dog breed, as most are.  As a result, it seems like the English Shepherd breed has traveled well down the path of strategy number two.  This path has been paved by online dog sales and an openly browsable national breed club registry.  The latter is a side-effect of good intentions.  For the most part, subpopulations have been lost to interrelatedness.  Equally important, there doesn’t seem to be an understanding in the breed community about the benefit of maintaining subpopulations as genetic reservoirs.  The English Shepherd breed is past strategy number one, and would need strategic breed management at national and regional levels to pull off strategies number three or four.  Unless the breed community makes the cultural change to recognize the importance of preserving subpopulations, and invest in doing so, the breed marches toward interrelatedness and reduced genetic variability.


To conclude with my own personal experiences, breeding to secure the future of a distinct subpopulation within the English Shepherd landrace is difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and unprofitable


ESBT conservation breeding is difficult because the same headwinds that led to the demise of the ESBT bloodline over the past several decades persist even today.  Online misinformation, lack of national or regional breed management, and commercial self-interests with little regard for breed security all play a role. 

Time-Consuming, but Enjoyable

ESBT conservation breeding is time-consuming because a lot of time had to be spent locating reliable source materials to research an accurate bloodline history.  Conservation breeding starts with a clear understanding of history if one is to succeed.  A lot of time was spent sorting through bias, misinformation, and obfuscation in online forums.  These time-consuming aspects don’t account for the hours per day spent caring for the dogs.  Dog husbandry is an enjoyable endeavor, for certain, but time-consuming, nonetheless.  


ESBT conservation breeding is expensive because my team drove multiple trips totaling thousands of miles, and spent thousands of dollars on travel, medical screenings, health, welfare, and feeding quality nutrition. 

Unprofitable, but that’s OK

Finally, ESBT conservation breeding is unprofitable for the same reason anything is so.  The input costs outweigh the output revenue.  This aspect of the process was expected and is the least important – conservation breeding is not an effort one undertakes for profit.  But unprofitability should not be overlooked when considering whether to lend a hand to the effort.  Nearly all siblings must be bred to succeed in preserving genetic variability.  Many if not most of the traditionally rural ESBT homes are unable or unwilling to spend much money on a dog.  And often the conditions of those environments don’t lead to an appreciable life expectancy.  The homes that can afford a dog and can afford to take care of it often lack cultural use and appreciation for the bloodline.  Cultural use and appreciation are probably the most important factors for securing the bloodline’s future. 

A bright future

In closing, I don’t want to make it sound like ESBT conservation breeding is not rewarding.  It has been a satisfying and educational journey, and I will continue to pursue it.  I am hopeful that the ESBT ship can be righted and the future of that bloodline can be secured.  


1 Sponenberg, D. Phillip, Jeannette Beranger, and Alison Martin. “Managing Breeds Chapter 5, Breeds as Genetic Pools: Variability and Predictability.” In Managing Breeds for a Secure Future: Strategies for Breeders and Breed Associations, Second edition., 43–57. Sheffield, UK: 5M Publishing, 2017.
2 Sponenberg, op. cit.
3 Founder effect describes the phenomenon whereby a population descends from a few distinct founders and cannot contain any genetic material not originally contained in those founders
4 Sponenberg, op.cit.
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