Breed Conservation for the English Shepherd

By Carolyn Christman and Rebecca Wingler
This is an update and expansion an essay written September 21, 2003 by Carolyn Christman.

Part One. Why Breeds are Important and Kinds of Breeds

This article originated in 2003 as a conversation about how and if livestock breed conservation strategies might benefit rare breeds of dogs. Livestock strategies may be a useful outside-the-box approach to canine genetics, or it may not be useful to you at all. Obviously there are differences between livestock and the dogs who work them, but perhaps there are more similarities than you might think. The livestock conservation ideas come from The Livestock Conservancy, which promotes rare breeds of domestic animals in the United States.

Everyone knows about endangered species of wild animals. The domestic animal species – including dogs, horses, cattle and others – are not endangered. Instead, it is the breeds within them that may be rare. This is somewhat like the subspecies of wild animals. In domestic species, the breeds make up the genetic diversity available to that species and allow it to adapt to changing environmental conditions and human needs, which are unpredictable.

The English Shepherd is one of the dog breeds which is important genetically and is somewhat endangered. We believe that the ES breed is an important resource for the dog species and for people, and that it should be conserved. This article describes this need and how it may be accomplished.

There are many dog breeds which are breeds in name only. They are based on color or other single characteristics or are a mixture of many others. In contrast, a true breed in the genetic sense is one that “breeds true.”

The biological definition states that “a breed is a group of animals that is consistent enough in type to be logically grouped together, and that when mated together within the group reproduces the same type.” (Juliet Clutton-Brock, 1987 A Natural History of Domesticated Mammals). That is, the parents produce offspring that are like them.

Another way to say this is that a true breed is a predictable package of characteristics, important for farmers and animal breeders alike. This means that each generation looks like the one that came before and the one that will follow. Dogs will be able to do the same jobs that they always have. Animal geneticist Stefan Adalsteinsson explains it this way: each breed’s unique history creates its unique genetic makeup.

A true breed is more than the sum of its genetic parts. A breed has a unique combination of genes that reflect its unique history and selection. This is the reason that breeds which have become extinct can never be recreated, because the combinations that took generations to create cannot be made again by working backwards. If the ES were to be lost, there would be no way to retrieve it from any other living breeds.

The exact line between breed and non-breed can create arguments, and it can convince people that the breed concept is outdated, especially in the dog world. These people, including some geneticists, have given up on the breed concept based on the corruption of many show ring breeds. They would instead rely on observation of type and performance measures to create new breeds. That is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The English Shepherd is a true genetic breed and deserves conservation. The best conservation strategies balance the historic qualities with the evolution of selection to fit changing times. They keep the ES on the farm payroll and also develop new opportunities, with the goal to share this beautiful legacy breed to those who come in the future.

Kinds of Breeds

There are four kinds or classes of livestock breeds in North America: landraces, standardized breeds, industrialized strains, and feral stocks. Only the first two are of relevance here. (Industrialized strains of livestock are actually sub-breed strains that have been intensively selected for a single or a very few production characteristics and are used for factory farming. Feral stocks are those groups of animals which descend from escape domestic stocks and have been shaped by natural selection.)

Landrace breeds are the beginning step of almost every breed. A landrace breed is a local, geographically-limited population that is consistent enough to be called a breed but more variable in type than a standardized breed. In livestock, landraces have been shaped by several factors: founder effect, geographic isolation, and natural selection that creates environmental adaptation, and breeders’ goals. Landraces are consistent in complex characteristics, especially those which relate to survival and adaptation. They are less consistent in appearance qualities which are less relevant to survival. Landraces are still unique enough to be distinguished from other breeds. Examples in livestock include the Spanish-derived criollo breeds of cattle and the Spanish Mustang horses, both of which are found in North and South America.

Landrace breeds lack the organizational structure that people associate with standardized breeds. Thus, it is very common for people unfamiliar with landraces to deny their existence as breeds; or to “improve” them through crossbreeding until they are nearly extinct; and to even try to destroy them. An example of this occurred in the 1930s in the SW United States, when the U.S. government attempted to wipe out all of the Churro sheep owned by the Navajo people, replacing them with improved breeds of sheep that soon perished in the extreme environment.

The ES as a landrace: The English Shepherd has been a landrace for most of its history as a breed. For dogs, landrace breed would be shaped by founder effect, breeder selection for specific jobs, and in the case of the herding breeds, what stock was worked and under what conditions and range would help shape its physical and mental characteristic.

Founder effect is an important idea. The founders of a breed are those animals which are the only genetic basis of the breed. In the case of island breeds, it’s easy to visualize: founders are the animals who swam from the mainland, were dropped off of explorers’ ships, or who walked across a land bridge. These are the only ones who have contributed genetically to the formation of the breed. The same would be true of any kind of environmental pocket or in an extreme environment that required quick adaptation. Third, founders may be landrace stocks chosen by breeders who were mindfully creating a breed, such as the Morgan horse. In all but the most isolated breeds, founders may be the basis but introductions also occur through the breed’s history and can have a genetic impact.

English Shepherd breed founders were the multi-purpose shepherds of the British Isles, brought to North America beginning in the 1800s. Over more than a century, these stocks became so widely distributed and consistent in type that they were the archetype farm dog celebrated by the artist Norman Rockwell. As dogs, ES were shaped somewhat by the natural environment and even more so by selection for the agricultural niche where they worked.

Farmers needed the ES for several important farm jobs. This need created a consistent dog with an optimum range of size, weight, athletic ability, intelligence, and a strong sense of intuition and partnership with their owners. There were always regional variations based on climate, type of stock worked, and farmer preferences, with many localized groups as the result.

ES populations, like those of other multi-purpose farm animal breeds, were highly valuable for decades. Yet they were also widespread enough to be considered common and ordinary. When more specialized breeds were imported and promoted, such as the Border Collie, these breeds were considered a “step up.” Also, as agriculture itself became more specialized and larger scale, especially after World War II, all of the multi-purpose animals, even the English Shepherds, lost their working niche.

Around the world, landrace breeds of all agricultural species are now in endangered and must adapt or perish. As Phil Sponenberg and Don Bixby write: “The very cultural setting that once provided for the development and maintenance of landraces [in the ES’s case, the diversified farm] is now itself largely gone and can no longer foster the animal genetic resources that it spawned. Conservation must now be intentional rather than by default.”

That is, the environmental niches and isolated environments are disappearing. Landraces have a better chance, or maybe their only chance of survival through greater organization and standardization, which is how the ES has evolved.

Standardized breeds are what most people think of when they think of breeds. In fact, standardized breeds are the only kinds of breeds that many people recognize. The English Shepherd has been a standardized breed for several decades, though pockets of landrace populations do remain.

In domestic species, standardized breeds began as landraces but were developed further when a group of breeders agreed upon a “standard,” or definition, and began to breed towards this ideal. As a result, uniformity and predictability were increased, and diversity was reduced. Standardized breeds generally have written records, a registry (or more than one), and a breed association. These practices isolate the breed genetically from others. They also create a mindset that there is a single ideal to which all breeders should direct their intentions.

Standardized breeds as an approach to animal breeding go back about 200 years though they are now typical of every domestic species. Each generation of animals joins the breed not just by being born but by being “registered” in a registry book. (The registry book is also referred to as a studbook, for horses and cattle, or a flockbook for sheep and goats.)

For most of these breeds, animal can only be enrolled in the registry if their parents are already registered. If this is the case, the registry is considered “closed.” This policy has the goal of preserving the predictability and uniformity of the breed so that the generations continue to be the same distinctive type.

Yet a closed breed has to have sufficient genetic diversity and that breeding practices preserve this if the breed can adapt to changing conditions and maintain its health and fitness.

So there is a pendulum swing for each breed which must balance uniformity and diversity. And for many breeds, there is more attention being paid to genetic analysis of the breeding stock so that diversity is preserved. There is also consideration of opening the registry books in some way to provide necessary diversity.

The need to incorporate landrace stocks and to conserve the greatest genetic breadth possible within the ES breed has led to the development of the Step-In Registry within the English Shepherd Club Registry. Animals from unregistered stocks may be evaluated and registered through an application process to demonstrate that they have a connection to the breed’s history and reflect its characteristics.

The ES as a Standardized Breed: The English Shepherd’s history as a standardized breed began in 1927 with its first registrations through the United Kennel Club (UKC). This was due to the work of O.O. Grant to have the English Shepherd recognized as a breed.


Tom Stodghill also took a keen interest in promoting the breed and began his own registry under the name of the English Shepherd Club of America around 1949. This was about the time Stodghill began a push for the UKC to only accept the black and tan coat color for the ES breed. UKC refused, so Stodghill and the ESCoA began to register dogs. These registrations were folded into the registry of the Animal Research Foundation (ARF) a few years later. Stodghill began the first English Shepherd club in 1950 also using the ESCoA name.

The third ES registry was founded in 1954 by Ed Emanuel and other breeders who broke away from the ESCoA. He founded the International English Shepherd Registry and the English Shepherd Club in 1954. For more than 50 years, the ES community had all three – UKC, ARF, and IESR – as registry options.

The formation of the English Shepherd Club Registry (ESCR) by the English Shepherd Club in 2005 created a fourth registry. ESCR was the most significant for the breed for several reasons. Its goals were to: bring all registered populations and pedigrees into one book; provide pedigree information to owners, breeders, and the public; and make the registration process transparent and accountable to breeders and the ES community as a whole. The database it has created also provides access to the breed’s genetic history.


Phillip Sponenberg and Donald E. Bixby, 2007. Managing Breeds for a Secure Future. Pittsboro, NC: The Livestock Conservancy. 919-542-704.

D. Phillip Sponenberg, Jeanette Bergenger, and Allison Martin, 2014. An Introduction to Heritage Breeds. Pittsboro, NC: The Livestock Conservancy.