SCRAPIE SCHEME SHIFTS FOCUS: By Jonathan Long

 COMPULSORY SCRAPIE genotyping of rams will help eradicate scrapie from UK flocks, but the new scheme has left some in the industry questioning past policies relating to the voluntary scheme.

The new compulsory ram genotyping scheme, likely to begin later this year, has set the aim of removing all scrapie susceptible VRQ rams from the national flock. This is all rams of types four and five (see table). However, the voluntary ram genotyping scheme, introduced in 2001, aimed to eliminate all scrapie susceptible genotypes – types three, four and five.

National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley believes there are two reasons for this change. “There is an element of re-prioritising of scheme objectives.

“And it is recognition of how the National Scrapie Plan impinges on the industry. The ARQ allele may carry some commercially important traits, particularly in hill and upland breeds.”

 But Suffolk Sheep Society commercial director Robyn Hulme says concentrating solely on VRQs appears to be a negative step. “Many Suffolk breeders have made breeding decisions based on the original objective of eliminating type three, four and five sheep, now DEFRA seems to be backtracking. We need clarification of exactly what the NSP aims are.”

However, for Hants-based Texel breeder Simon Farmer the decision to re-focus the NSP on simply eliminating type four and five sheep is welcome. It gives wider breeding opportunities, rather than forcing breeders to use relatively few tups, he says.

“The breed would be stronger if breeders hadn”t felt forced to focus on selecting for just one trait.”

Blackface Sheep Breeders Association president Jim Mitchell also believes the relaxation of NSP requirements is essentially good news for breeders. However, he has concerns that some commercially valuable traits may already have been lost in the quest for scrapie resistance.

But Mr Mitchell does not believe breeders who have been breeding for scrapie resistance in recent years have done the wrong thing. “The number of scrapie resistant tups available has increased, so more breeders have access to resistant rams.

“Now producers are able to use tups suited to their flocks and systems. These leading breeders have done the breed a real service,” he adds.

But Mr Thorley believes the compulsory scheme will allow UK breeders to ensure they are in the strongest possible position regarding scrapie resistance. While admitting there may be problems enforcing the scheme, he believes breeders will come on board.

“It is down to everyone in the industry to take responsibility for their own actions and ultimately, ram breeders and buyers will suffer from not joining,” he warns.

Mr Hulme suggests one way of ensuring all ram breeders take part in the scheme would be to make it a cross compliance requirement.

DEFRA was unavailable to provide details of the proposed timetable for introduction or the relaxation of the NSP breeding objectives before FW went to press.

jonathan.long@rbi.co.uk