During difficult times, people use their skills and knowledge to help however they can. And when we think of the war in Ukraine, the first people that come to mind are soldiers and doctors. But what about farmers, scientists, and veterinarians? They’re all vital for the country’s food security and for the protection of its food heritage and biodiversity.
In the picturesque village of Birky, near Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, we find hope and bravery expressed with wings: The inhabitants here are specialists in poultry farming.
Why is this important?
We spoke to Natalia Shomina, Deputy Director for Research at the State Poultry Research Station, to hear the story of this special place—the only dedicated poultry research center in the country. Established in 1929, it has grown and evolved over decades to become an experimental base where scientists and farmers join forces and combine their knowledge.
Since 2010 exemplars of the most valuable rare breeds in Ukraine have been transferred to the research station, and the team has been hard at work preserving their gene pool. At present, the State Poultry Research Station is the only institute conserving the gene pool of this Ukrainian poultry. “We’re working to preserve, reproduce and improve the heritage bestowed by the heritage of Ukrainian farmers,” Natalia explains.
The institute is kept alive thanks to the efforts of a team formed by 40 scientists and technicians, who keep about 2000 chickens and 600 turkeys. Part of their work includes industry research and providing assistance and consulting services to poultry farmers. Taking care of all these birds is no easy task, as Natalia emphasizes. “But we’re not just professionals doing it for a job: we’re committed to this work as scientists. We love what we do.”
These bird breeds are unique because they belong to generations of chickens and turkeys that have been raised on Ukrainian soil, adapting to the local climate and feeding on local plants. They are widely appreciated by small-scale farmers, and you can find them in yards and backyards all over the country.
It is because of this adaptation that these local breeds are more resistant to diseases, having developed natural immunity. Natalia explains that the characteristics of these breeds also improve their gastronomic profile too, describing their “pronounced taste and aroma, and eggs with large yolks rich in vitamins and minerals. And people can tell the difference. They prefer the meat and eggs of these domestic poultry breeds.”
One of the Ukrainian breeds, the Birkivska Barvista chicken, is a result of a selection of work and research that took place between 1998 and 2004. Studies conducted by scientists at the station have shown that eggs from this breed have greater nutritional properties than the eggs of imported commercial breeds. This is just one of the many breeds they are proud to care for, especially since it takes its name from the village of Birky.
But then the war came
“Cities and villages are being bombarded, houses, roads, and enterprises are being destroyed. Right now, our country is only thinking about defending itself and protecting our people,” Natalia tells us.
The State Poultry Research Station was created with one mission: to improve the food security of Ukraine. Even while the world seems to crumble around them, the work of these scientists and veterinarians goes on, which includes preserving the gene pool. Keeping their operation running means providing the birds with food, water, veterinary care, and attention: daily routines which ran smoothly in the past. Now, with the war on their doorstep, keeping the station going is an arduous task. Income is scarce since the demand for their products and services has dropped off, and they have been providing chickens and eggs at lower prices at a loss in order to support their local community.
What does it take to keep the station going?
Before the war, their income to maintain the birds came from scientific activities and sales.
But with a lack of funds to operate and difficulties only increasing, Natalia tells us her staff keeps going from a sense of patriotic duty. “They use their skills, their time, and their own financial resources to get grain to feed our birds. Leaving them to starve is not an option, and neither is reducing the population.”
Every bird is not just a representative of a breed that needs saving for the sake of biodiversity, as Natalia sees it, but together “they are property of the people of Ukraine, they belong to all of us”.
“We know that we will survive because there are people who understand the values we stand for. Thanks to the financial support of our friends and partners to whom we are infinitely grateful, we continue to provide our birds with everything they need. When the war is over—after our victory— and our people can return to their peaceful lives, we will still be here in Birky, doing our work, protecting these poultry breeds, and ensuring that the community can benefit from them, too.”
For Natalia, their work is a contribution to a peaceful future, not just for themselves and for their birds, but for everyone who cares about preserving the gene pool of these Ukrainian rare breeds and indeed, about their brave guardians. We thank the State Poultry Research Station director, Katerinich Oleg Alexandrovich, and Natalia Shomina for their efforts to protect animal life and biodiversity in these trying times.