by Emily Rose Johnson, Communications Coordinator for The Livestock Conservancy | Monday, November 28, 2022 —
Pineywoods Bull, courtesy of Bruce and Marge Petesch / Chatco Cattle Company

Several speckled brown and white cows graze in a pasture at Bruce and Marge Petesch’s Tangled Oaks Farm in Siler City, NC. These are Pineywoods cattle, one of several endangered heritage breeds in the Southeast.

“We chose Pineywoods because they were the right size, capable of defending themselves from predators, known for easy calving, and a perfect fit for the silvopasture land management strategy we envisioned,” said Bruce and Marge.

Read on to discover the long histories of Pineywoods cattle and a few more endangered heritage livestock and poultry breeds of the Southeast.

Shrinking Livestock Biodiversity & Why It Matters

Heritage breeds bred over time for specific local environments are rapidly declining. This decline is caused in large part by the modern agricultural system’s overreliance on a few select breeds. As the number of breeds declines, so does genetic diversity, leaving the future of agriculture vulnerable to disease, parasites, and climate change.

Biodiversity “for food and agriculture is indispensable to food security, sustainable development, and the supply of many vital ecosystem services. It makes production systems more resilient to shocks and stresses, including to the effects of climate change,” according to the FAO. 

Endangered heritage breeds are crucial in the conservation of livestock biodiversity in the U.S. and globally. In addition to increasing biodiversity, heritage breeds bring other advantages to agriculture, including mothering instincts, climate adaptability, and resistance to diseases and parasites.

Banker horses, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Endangered Horses of the Southeast

Several horse breeds with deep roots in the Southeast include Banker, Rocky Mountain, Mountain Pleasure, Florida Cracker, and Marsh Tacky horses. Many of these horse breeds descend from Spanish horses brought to America during the conquest of the New World.

Banker horses, a strain of Colonial Spanish horses, are the official state horses of North Carolina. These free-roaming horses have lived on the barrier islands in North Carolina’s Outer Banks for many years, likely since the 16th century. The horses survive on the islands by grazing on marsh grasses and drinking from pools of fresh water. They are a major tourist attraction in the area. Because of low population numbers, however, these horses are critically endangered.

Marsh Tacky horse, courtesy of Jeannette Beranger / The Livestock Conservancy

Marsh Tacky horses are now critically endangered but were once the most common horses in the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina. Populations began to decline with the invention of automobiles in the late 19th century. The breed also played a significant role in South Carolina’s history. During the American Revolution, troops with the famous “Swamp Fox” (Francis Marion) rode Tacky horses. After the Civil War, the Marsh Tacky became an integral part of the Gullah Island community and culture.

Critically endangered Florida Cracker horses are ideal for driving cattle. Florida cowboys riding their horses were nicknamed “Crackers” because of the sound of their whips cracking in the air. During the Great Depression, cattle were brought from the Dust Bowl to Florida as part of government-run relief programs. The cattle brought screwworm parasites with them, changing the way cattle herding was done. Instead of using the smaller Florida Cracker horses, cowboys turned to larger Quarter horses for roping cattle, leading to a decline in the Florida Cracker horse population.

Rocky Mountain horse, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Mountain Pleasure horses and Rocky Mountain horses are threatened horse breeds that originated in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky from a mix of Spanish horses from the Southeast and English horses from the East. These horses were shaped in the rugged mountains, so they are hardy and travel well on steep trails. Mountain Pleasure and Rocky Mountain horses are closely related. Both breeds are known for being gaited.

Mountain Pleasure horse, courtesy of D. Phillip Sponenberg

Endangered Cattle of the Southeast

The Pineywoods cattle breed is one of the oldest in the United States and thrives in the Southeast. The breed originated from Spanish cattle brought to America in the 16th century. Originally used for the timber industry and for beef production, Pineywoods cattle were shaped by agricultural and environmental conditions in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, making them a heat-tolerant breed that thrives in that region. These small, rugged cattle are parasite resistant, survive on low-forage diets, and tolerate heat well. Pineywoods cattle are threatened, which means there is an estimated global population of less than 5,000.

Pineywoods calves The Livestock Conservancy

Another Southeastern breed descended from Spanish cattle is the Florida Cracker. These cattle originated in Florida in the same conditions as Florida Cracker horses. Florida Crackers developed in an environment generally hostile to cattle, resulting in a heat-tolerant breed that is resistant to parasites and diseases and productive on the low-quality forage found on the grasslands and in swamps of the south. They are primarily used for beef production.

Florida Cracker cow, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Endangered Sheep of the Southeast

Gulf Coast Native sheep are the oldest sheep in the Southeast. As an adaptation to the heat, they do not have wool on their faces, legs, and bellies. Because of their fortitude, they were used throughout the Southeast for meat and wool.

In addition to their heat tolerance, Gulf Coast sheep are resistant to parasites, especially barber pole worms, which are commonly found in the Southeast. The ewes also make great mothers as they generally lamb without assistance.

These resilient sheep are now critically endangered, with a global population of less than 500.

Gulf Coast Native rams, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Hog Island sheep descend from English sheep brought to Hog Island, a barrier island of Virginia, in the 18th century, where they evolved as free-ranging foragers. Although these sheep are no longer on Hog Island, they are raised by many living history museums as descendants of historic sheep from the colonial period. Hog Island sheep are listed as critically endangered on The Livestock Conservancy’s Conservation Priority List.

Hog Island lambs, courtesy of Megan Bannon

Endangered Pigs of the Southeast

Ossabaw Island hogs were brought to Ossabaw Island by early Spanish explorers. This breed is biologically unique in that it was relatively isolated and now provides scientists the opportunity to study a long-term natural population that is the closest representation of the original Spanish animals adapted to the challenging island known for its heat, humidity, and seasonal food scarcity.

Ossabaw Island pig at Conner Prairie, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

A second Southeastern heritage pig breed is the Choctaw hog. They were from similar Spanish roots as the Ossabaw Island hogs and were cultivated by the Choctaw Nation.

Read CFSA’s interview with Rhyne Cureton about raising hogs in the Southeast.

In the 1830s, the United States government removed the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole Nations from Mississippi and Alabama, forcing them to move to Oklahoma. Their hogs were also taken in this migration.

The Choctaw breed is critically rare, with a population estimated at a few hundred animals. To learn more about the history of the Choctaw hog, you can listen to The Livestock Conservancy’s conversation with Dr. Ian Thompson, who serves as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and as President of the Oklahoma Bison Association.

Choctaw hogs, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

Endangered Geese of the Southeast

Cotton Patch geese used to be a common sight in the Southeast. They are great lawnmowers and were used to weed cotton and corn fields until the 1950s. This breed played a significant role in providing sustenance for families with their eggs, meat, and grease during the Great Depression. Cotton Patch geese are listed as Threatened on the Conservation Priority List.

Cotton Patch geese, courtesy of Denise Frye

Endangered Goats of the Southeast

Spanish goats, currently listed as “watch” on the Conservation Priority List, were the only goats known in the southern U.S. for more than 300 years. They were initially brought from Spain to the Caribbean and then to parts of Mexico and the U.S. and were a valued source of meat, dairy, and hides. These hardy goats are primarily used for meat production today.

Spanish goat kid, courtesy of The Livestock Conservancy

About The Livestock Conservancy

The Livestock Conservancy is a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction. It publishes the Conservation Priority List annually to showcase which breeds should take priority for conservation efforts based on their level of endangerment. To put the mission into context, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that we lose an average of 2 domestic animal breeds each week. In the past fifteen years alone, the FAO has identified the extinction of 300 out of 6,000 breeds worldwide, with another 1,350 in danger of extinction.