21 December 2001

Better genes for better lambs

SCIENTISTS can help sheep producers cope with some of the major challenges they face, says the director of the Welsh Institute of Rural Studies.

Will Haresign told a Welsh Sheep Strategy conference that researchers are working on genetic improvement of carcass quality in hill sheep breeds and developing selection indices for longwool crossing.

The result would be better conformation hill sheep. Less than 50% of lambs currently meet the required specification and this has a negative impact on producer returns, he added.

WSS is also breeding for parasite resistance, which could lead to better welfare, especially in organic systems, reduce costs and satisfy consumer demands for lower chemical inputs.

"Major problems require imaginative, even radical, solutions. We should be asking if we have the correct industry structure in Wales, and whether current breeding strategies are the correct ones," said Prof Haresign.

An industry dominated by the export of lambs not acceptable on the home market was incredibly vulnerable, yet many farms had good quality upland pastures that could support fewer better quality sheep.

"We continue to keep small mountain sheep on these pastures to chase headage payments. The removal of breed restrictions, area payments for HLCAs and environmental schemes should be making us think again."

Research into breeding strategies is needed, says Will Haresign.