Foraging pattens of sheep breeds key to hill management

Breed of sheep can have a significant effect on how uplands are grazed, influencing management of hill vegetation, according to Eileen McCloskey, Queens University, Belfast.

Speaking at the British Society of Animal Science Conference, Belfast, she said; “In Northern Ireland 70% of land is classified as a Least Favourable Area (LFA) and within this land you will find 80% of NI sheep population – so environmentally sustainable grazing regimes are an important aspect of sheep farming in these areas.

“Differences in foraging behaviour such as diet selection, spatial distribution and foraging patterns between sheep breeds need to be established for efficient management and to prevent encroachment by undesirable species such as gorse,” added Miss McCloskey.

And for this reason grazing patterns and spatial distribution of Scottish Blackface ewes were compared with Texel x Scottish Blackface sheep. A flock of 120, two year old females containing both breeds grazed an area of 163ha at Glenwherry Hill Farm, Co Antrim, during May to October. Several randomly selected ewes were then fitted with GPS collars.

“Results showed there were breed differences for habitat selection as well as forage patterns, with Scottish Blackface ewes showing preference for upland habitats such as blanket bog. They also displayed better characteristics for grazing and managing vegetation on hill environments as they grazed over a larger area (about 1.37ha more) and moved higher up the hill (about 6m higher), also spending more time grazing on the various different habitats. This needs to be taken in to consideration for upland management,” explained Ms McCloskey.