Duration October 2001 to December 2006

Team and Leader  Alistair Carson

Organisations involved Alistair Carson, (ARINI), Lynne Dawson (ARINI), Bruce Moss, (Food Science Division, DARD)

Background and Summary

The Northern Ireland hill sheep industry is facing major challenges. Over the past decade a decline in market returns, particularly for hill breed lambs, has put the industry under sustained financial pressure. An increasing proportion of out put is in the form of support payments which are now moving to an area based system and are becoming increasingly linked with environmental policies. 

The impact of these changes means that hill flocks will continue to support less labour, and on many hill systems stocking rates will decline to meet the requirements of environmental protection schemes. Thus for the successful development of all sectors of the hill industry easier managed systems of hill production are crucial. Lower stocking rates will provide opportunities to improve individual ewe productivity and improve carcass characteristics, whilst in some systems lower stocking rates will give an impetus to move to organic systems of production.

Flock genetics has a very major effect on labour requirements, and the level and quality of input from the hill sheep sector. For example, a recent on-farm hill sheep study undertaken by ARINI showed that ram breed substitution could increase output per ewe by 24% with concomitant improvements in carcass quality. Major opportunities now lie in improving the genetic potential of hill ewes, particularly as all ewe geneotypes will be eligible for full hill support payments. Currently, Northern Ireland, hill sheep flocks consist mainly of purebred Scottish Blackface and, to a lesser extent, Wicklow Cheviot ewes.

Using purebreds rather than crossbred ewes, means that the potential benefits of heterosis are not exploited in harsh hill conditions where they are likely to be of greatest benefit. Crossbreeding could be used to take advantage of breed differences in genetic merit for different traits (e.g. hardiness, ease of lambing, carcass traits) and the benefits heterosis. Thus in extensive hill systems, including those moving to organic systems, the opportunity to improve the hardiness characteristics of the ewe and lamb survival are key factors which could be improved by crossbreeding, greatly reducing labour requirements. In other hill systems there may be opportunities to use crossbred ewes with improved growth and carcass traits to improve the level and quality of lamb output. In all systems ewe fertility, ease of lambing, and lamb viability traits are likely to greatly benefit from crossbreeding.

In view of this background the objectives of this study are to develop, through crossbreeding, easier managed ewes with improved levels of lamb output and carcass quality for the Northern Ireland sheep industry.

Timescale

Select 6 hill farms (3 unimproved hill and 3 improved hill systems) for on-farm study (Oct 2001) (ii) Organise experimental matings to produce F1 crossbred female progeny (April 2002 and 2003) (iii) Comparative performance of purebred and F1 crossbred ewes (2 & 3-year olds) (2004-2006).

N.B. On some farms suitable F1 progeny may already be in place thus provisional data on the comparative performance of crossbred ewes will be produced from 2002.

Benefits

Scientific - Scientific paper on carcass quality of the FI crossbred male lambs produced (2004)
Scientific paper on the comparative performance of crossbred hill ewes over a range of hill systems (2006)
Industry - Farm walks to present information to industry (summer 2003-2006), 2 press releases per annum (commencing autumn 2002)
AgriSearch - Report on provisional results (winter 2002, 2003, 2004,2005. Final report (December 2006)

Project News Update

An extension was commissioned on this project.
Status: to be completed December 2006, results to be made available in Spring 2007