Hampshire Downs may not strike many people as a modern breed with attributes desired by the modern sheep industry.
But according to one Gloucestershire breeder that’s exactly what the breed has become in the last 10 years.
Wotton-under-Edge-based Mike Adams believes that after eight seasons of sire-referencing, his Hampshire Down rams are perfectly suited to the modern trade.
“The main problem in the breed was that it almost grew too fast and so started laying down fat at lighter carcass weights.
That made it difficult to produce lambs with carcass weights much over 18kg.
“But this is now a thing of the past. We’ve bred our sheep for leanness and in the last few years have made rapid progress.”
“The rams we sell now retain the breed’s traditional assets of fast growth and excellent carcass conformation.
But through extensive use of performance recording, including computer tomography scanning of lambs, we’ve been able to identify sires which leave lambs with flesh not fat.”
But the problem has been convincing commercial farmers that the breed has changed, says Mr Adams.
“Unfortunately, many people have a fixed idea of what the Hampshire Down is and the lambs it produces.
It’s only through word of mouth and experience that people have been convinced of the breed’s merits.”
Much of this has been achieved by ensuring Hampshire Downs have been included in initiatives such as CT scanning and getting the breed’s voice heard at the highest levels of the industry.
However, while Mr Adams has invested time and money progressing his flock, he feels the return on investment has, historically, been limited.
“The demand for recorded rams has been slow to take off, although in the last two years that has increased dramatically and a number of breeders are finding demand far outstripping supply.
“And demand is now starting to come from many areas where traditionally the Hampshire Down has not been a favoured sire.
We’ve been working hard to increase uptake of the breed in the North of England and in Scotland.”
Mr Adams believes the breed, with its natural hardiness, is ideal for the less favoured climates of the north of the UK and commercial farmers are now starting to see the benefits.
“Lambs are born with a good coat of wool and are quick to start suckling, making their survival chances much better than some other breeds.”
Improved carcass weights, coupled with fast growth also make the breed the ideal cross for some of the breeds now becoming popular as females.
Mr Adams says when crossed onto a Lleyn ewe, the Hampshire Down improves finishing times of prime lambs considerably.
In part, he believes the increase in deadweight marketing has helped the Hampshire Down as some liveweight buyers are reluctant to buy Hampshire Down cross lambs, believing them to be too fat for the modern trade.
“But once buyers see them on the hook they don’t know what breed they are.”
But it’s not just performance recording which has helped the breed, Mr Adams has also invested in New Zealand Hampshire Down genetics in a bid to improve length and size.
“One of the main benefits of this has been improved ease of lambing, a key attribute in modern sheep systems.
New Zealand breeders have worked hard at breeding sheep which can lamb themselves and a lot of this is down to body shape.”
“Lambs bred off New Zealand Hampshire Down genetics tend to have finer shoulders and longer necks, but unfortunately, they also lack a bit of backend,” he says.
To counteract this loss of shape Mr Adams has been backcrossing New Zealand-bred sheep with UK sires, a process he says has been successful and which has resulted in a sheep with many desirable attributes.
“The main thing is having a lamb which gets up and lives with minimal assistance.
The quicker a lamb sucks, the quicker it starts growing.”
For the future, Mr Adams intends to make use of a number of emerging technologies to improve his 40-ewe flock, including, hopefully, a genetic marker for footrot available in New Zealand.
“I’d like this to be another unique selling point for the breed to capitalise on,” he adds.