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Finding easy care sheep traits

To breed easy care sheep, scientists at AgResearch first had to find sheep that expressed the traits they wanted – they did this in stages.

To manage the easy care sheep research efficiently and to ensure ongoing funding, scientists broke the research down into stages, focusing on particular traits at each stage.

Short tails

The first stage of the research involved experimenting with tail length. The main breed used to introduce the short tail was the Finnish Landrace.

Bare heads and legs

Many sheep breeds have bare heads and legs so these traits were easy to find. Scientists selected Cheviot and Border Leicester breeds for these traits because they were adapted to New Zealand, readily available and cheap.

 

Bare backsides

East Friesian was the main breed selected for the bare backside trait, although scientists did find that this trait showed up in a number of breeds used in the research. East Friesians also have bare tails and don’t accumulate dags.

The scientists discovered 2 types of bareness during the research – 1 type that is woolly in winter and becomes bare in summer and another that remains bare. They found it difficult to distinguish one from the other during summer, which is the high-risk period for flystrike, so they used both types.

Bare bellies

The bare belly trait was the slowest to breed into the flock because it’s very uncommon and not found in 1 particular breed. Hoping to achieve this result more quickly, scientists introduced the Wiltshire breed, which naturally shed their wool in summer. The problem with this was that many sheep shed wool from all over their body and not just from their bellies.

Learning from research

Later in the research, the scientists introduced the Texel breed, which is a more recent breed in New Zealand, imported in 1990. They found Texel to be a good breed for all the traits except the short tail. It may even be possible for the Texel and Finn breeds alone to be used to incorporate all the traits more quickly.

The scientists experimented with a number of other breeds, which they learned from but didn’t continue using in this research.

Having completed the research, Dr David Scobie points out that they could have started with a number of different breeds and ended up with a similar result, and this is what they encourage breeders to do. There are many breeds of sheep with the desired traits to choose from. If a wide variety of breeds are used to create sheep with easy care traits, there will be greater diversity.

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