Sheep genetics and how it continues to adapt to the demands placed on UK industry are at the center of the National Sheep Association’s latest sheep breed survey.
Carried out for the fifth time since 1971, the survey carried out by AHDB / Signet Breeding, with funding from UK collection commissions and support from British Wool, gives insight more than just changing the number of breeds – it creates a picture of how the UK sheep industry is structured, while providing an analysis of probable future breeding and genetic strategies.
The results suggest a continued movement of traditional breeds associated with stratification, towards more closed herds in the lowlands and the increased use of terminal and composite sire crosses to influence maternal lines.
NSA Managing Director Phil Stocker said: “First and foremost, this work suggests to me that sheep farmers are increasingly interested in and owning genetics within their herds. This in itself is a very positive conclusion given that genetic selection is one of the key foundations of a successful sheep business.
“It is not surprising that we are witnessing a gradual and continued move away from the traditional layered sheep farming system, although the percentage of sheep involved in this long established approach is still over 50%, and it is. due in part to lowland herds eager to be closed herds and to control genetics and health status.
“But we also know that the effects of all of this are boosting quality and innovation and some of the crossbreed companies and their members are active in the response to make sure they deliver what buyers want – that it’s health insurance or performance figures. The matings of purebred sheep may have decreased, but purebreds are still in great demand and without them crossbreeds are not possible.
“There is no doubt that a strong case can be made for stratification, and increasingly there is no reason why it cannot be done more under closed herd principles. If what we’re seeing is an improvement in quality and productivity, then that’s to be commended, Mr. Stocker said. “On the other end of the breed spectrum, it’s interesting to see a breed like the Herdwick experiencing some growth, which again shows that hill farmers are finding ways to innovate and drive demand through targeted involvement in environmental programs and the development of specialized meat products.
The report goes on to say that the use of estimated breed values (EBVs) for rams has seen a slight increase in higher value sections of the national herd, but overall use is not widespread.
Mr Stocker continued: “On the one hand, you can say that we shouldn’t be worried about this – if you think of our breeding herd as a pyramid if those at the top are increasingly using EBVs, then a genetics improved will filter and improve the quality of sheep more widely. But we also know that more could be done here with terminal and maternal EBVs – of course a sheep has to look good, but the AHDB Ram Compare project yielded more evidence of variations in performance between individuals.
“All agriculture is facing huge changes and sheep farming is no different. This work is extremely valuable in following the structure of our industry and the NSA will use it in our work to ensure the success of the sheep industry in the future. It is encouraging to see innovation and ownership of breeds and sheep genetics, down to the level of an individual farm and I am convinced that with such a large sector and closely linked to our landscape and environment we can have the best of all worlds – a high level of breed and genetic diversity as well as efficient sheep ”.