31 March 2000

Maternal selection trait

MATERNAL behaviour is heritable, and might be used as a selection trait for sheep, particularly hill breeds such as the Scottish Blackface.

Presenting a paper at the conference, SAC researcher Nichola Lambe said she had measured the response of Scottish Blackface ewes when their lambs were tagged within 24 hours of birth.

"We scored ewes according to how close they stayed to their lambs at tagging. Some stayed close to their lambs when they were being tagged, others took off and did not return to their lambs, but were later reunited by the shepherd."

Miss Lambe said response – the ewes maternal behaviour – had a significant effect on lamb liveweight gain and the number of lambs dying between birth and weaning. "Ewes fleeing and not returning to their lambs reared significantly lighter lambs and lost significantly more lambs to weaning than ewes which stayed closer to their lambs at tagging.

"But we also found that maternal score increased with parity. Age had no effect, only the number of times a ewe had previously lambed, suggesting that experience increases maternal behaviour. All ewes fleeing when their lambs were tagged were first or second parity."

The results suggest maternal behaviour score is a heritable trait of the Scottish Blackface breed, she believes.

"But we need to do a bigger study to generate more data to assess whether it would be beneficial to include maternal behaviour score as a selection criteria in breeding programmes for Black-face sheep," said Miss Lambe. &#42