Spotlight on sheep in national breeds survey of genetics

The publication of the national Sheep Breed Survey this week reveals more about the industry than simply the number and distribution of breeds around the country.

It creates a picture of how the UK sheep industry is structured, the part that stratification is playing, as well as providing an analysis of likely future breeding and genetic strategies.

Marking only the fifth such report since the survey first began in 1971, the last in 2012, the marketing bodies which commissioned the research - Quality Meat Scotland, AHDB and the Welsh red meat promotion body – said the publication recorded not only what had happened in the past, but also hinted how lamb production would change in the future.

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Changing breeding policies in both the lowland and hill sectors were identified, indicating how the productivity and efficiency of the national flock was likely to change – and new data also highlighted the carbon footprints of different production systems.

The survey also pointed towards an ongoing movement away from the traditional breeds associated with stratification towards more closed flocks in the lowlands and the increased use of the terminal and composite sire-based crosses to influence maternal lines.

More innovative use of crossbreeding within the British sheep industry also indicated that cross breeding strategies were becoming more diverse, reflecting the way sheep producers were adapting with the times and striving to improve performance

The survey showed that the number of crossbred ewes in the national flock increased from 56 per cent to 58 per cent, indicating a small reduction in purebred ewe numbers compared to 2012. The three main hill ewe breeds (Scottish Blackface, Welsh Mountain and Swaledale) have dominated the purebreeding sector over the last decade, but the survey shows all three were now declining in number.

The size and number of hill flocks producing recognised crossbreeds (such as the mule or halfbred) were also in decline. The main types of Mule ewe (North Country, Welsh and Scottish) currently makeup 18.8 per cent of the national flock, but crossbreeds of other types now contribute significantly to the crossbred ewe population.

The National Sheep Association said that the survey showed how producers continued to adapt in response to ever changing demands being placed on the industry.

“First and foremost this work suggests to me that sheep farmers are increasingly taking an interest and ownership of the genetics within their flocks,” said NSA chief Phil Stocker.

“That in itself is a really positive finding given that genetic selection is one of the key foundations of a successful sheep farming business.”

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He said it was no surprise that there was a gradual move away from the traditional stratified sheep breeding system - although the percentage of sheep involved in this long-established approach is still over 50 per cent, driven in part by lowland producers wanting closed flocks, putting them in control of both genetics and health status.

“All of farming is facing huge change and sheep farming is no different,” said Stocker.

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