Penning a new chapter in sheep genetics

A new scoping study that will drive the future direction of genetic improvement in the British sheep industry has been announced.

Funded by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and designed to meet the needs of the entire supply chain, the project will be led by CIEL academic partner Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) in collaboration with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the National Sheep Association (NSA), agribusiness consultants AbacusBio and CIEL.

The project team, made up of industry experts and researchers, will also recommend solutions that deliver breeding goals to maximise genetic, economic and environmental gain across the sector.

The project is made up of three work streams:

  • A review of sheep genetic improvement programmes globally
  • The definition of the appropriate breeding goals
  • An estimation of the economic impact of implementing the breeding goals

The review will report on the latest developments in genetic and genomic approaches globally and detail how these can be applied to enhance productivity and sustainability of the UK sheep flock.

The project will provide evidence to underpin a new era of sheep breeding, incorporating new traits into genetic and genomic breeding programmes.

The breeding goals will be informed by the literature review and refined using structured stakeholder interviews and industry workshops. These breeding goals are likely to be built to deliver genetic gain in maternal upland, maternal lowland and terminal production systems, with different emphases being put on economically important traits in the different production systems.

Three breeding goals will be selected with appropriate trait weightings agreed by consensus among all actors and stakeholders. The project team will examine, at the national level, the potential economic benefit of applying the different breeding goals, using both genetic and economic modelling at a national level.

Ultimately, the project will develop a business case for the new breeding goals and associated genetic improvement delivery solutions, in the form of an integrated sheep genetic improvement network aimed at addressing the future needs of the industry.

Dr Joanne Conington, livestock geneticist at SRUC, said: “This study will underpin the future direction of sheep genetics in the UK. It is timely because in the post-Brexit era, we are in a very strong position to influence how best to increase efficiencies in sheep meat production to better meet the needs of meat processors and consumers, while also keeping a close eye on welfare, environmental footprint and sheep meat quality.”