A tall, spare, bearded, lively, modest, quietly humorous and gentle man, the animal breeding consultant Ian L Mason was known and respected worldwide for his encyclopaedic and authoritative knowledge of livestock breeds and breeding. It was said of him by a friend in Israel: ‘It is known in Asia that Dr Mason has a beard, wears a beret and rides a bicycle.’ His wife Elizabeth – they were married for nearly 70 years – first met him at Cambridge University in the 1930s when she became aware of a tall (6ft 2), gauche and unpredictable young man with a shock of wavy fair hair and very long legs, who ‘rushed about a lot’.
Long before the creation of various rare-breed organisations in different parts of the world, Ian’s vision had been to conserve indigenous livestock breeds, even then being threatened by the rapid expansion of major commercial breeds. His aim was firstly to identify and catalogue each breed, preferably by seeing them in the field in their own country, and then to promote their protection by educating breeders, institutes, academics and practical farmers about their special qualities. As he wrote in 1974, ‘any extinction or disappearance of a species or breed represents an irreplaceable element of the life diversity that is lost’.
In 1951, CAB published the first edition of Ian’s scrupulously researched A World Dictionary of Livestock Breeds, Types and Varieties – the forerunner of the new Mason’s World Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding published 65 years later. It was a massive challenge in the early days to identify and describe the breeds before they disappeared. Each entry in his World Dictionary was brief, with a standardised breed name for use in English publications, the place of origin and simple codes to identify the breed’s various characteristics and uses.
He updated the World Dictionary several times over the decades and the number of entries expanded with each new edition. As the century turned when he was in his late 80s, he decided to hand over the reins and asked me to edit the fifth edition on his behalf, published by CABI in 2002. When I stayed with Ian at his Edinburgh home in the shadow of the Castle to start editing the World Dictionary, I came away with many boxfuls of papers, journals, his own black-and-white photographs of livestock all over the world, an eclectic collection of books (several in foreign languages) – and a hefty handwritten card-index system, none of it stored electronically. He had made at least 50 overseas tours in his quest to see livestock in their local context and to identify as many breeds and types as possible for each country.
Ian remained active and fully occupied with research, writing papers and corresponding with his global network of friends until he died in June 2007 at the age of 93. His benign presence would continue to look over my shoulder during the several years it took to research, write and bring the World Encyclopedia into print and I have always been acutely aware of what The Scotsman described in its obituary as ‘Ian’s attribute of systematic collecting, meticulously categorising and patiently cataloguing’. He had set a very high standard.
When CABI was considering a sixth edition of the Dictionary after Ian’s death, we discussed the idea of extending it even further by using it as the basis of an encyclopaedia. This gave us the scope to describe the breeds in much greater detail and to set them in their wider context, including how they linked with other breeds in their own region and indeed worldwide. The task was a huge one and, like the Dictionary, the Encyclopedia grew and grew – to such an extent that we soon asked for a second author, Lawrence Alderson (internationally known in the rare breeds world), to handle the sheep section and also to write a general chapter about genetics and breeding. Later we invited another two highly respected and knowledgeable authors, both of them professors: Stephen Hall to write most of the cattle section and, in the USA, Phillip Sponenberg to write about horse breeds. The Encyclopedia now has separate sections for sheep, cattle, horses, pigs, goats, donkeys, camelids, water buffalo, yak and also other potential domesticants such as elephants, reindeer and other cervids, bison, antelopes, musk oxen and a look at rabbits, guinea pigs, grasscutters and fur-bearing mammals. The aim has been to describe every breed of every type of four-legged mammalian livestock in every country in the world. The task has taken eight years.
I hope that Ian would have approved of the results and I hope that we have honoured his very high reputation. I think he would have been quietly amused to note that my three co-authors all happen to be bearded.
Guest blog post by Valerie Porter
Mason's Encyclopedia of Livestock Breeds and Breeding is available to buy at a 20% discount, using the discount code CCMEL20 on the CABI Bookshop