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FG 175: How the British sheep industry have evolved to meet challenges

Sheep have long played an important role in history since prehistoric man found out they could not only provide milk and meat, but wool which could be made into cloth.


Angela Calvert takes a look back at the events which have influenced the sector...

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FG 175: How the British sheep industry have evolved to meet challenges

Britain’s unique landscape has been shaped and maintained by sheep for centuries, with its diversity of breeds and unique stratified system setting it apart from the rest of the world.


Robert Bakewell introduced the first selective livestock breeding programmes in the second half of the 18th century.


Up until this, time animals were not bred specifically for meat or milk. Cattle were bred for their strength in pulling implements and sheep mainly for their wool and the country’s prosperity is said to have been built on the wool trade.


Mr Bakewell’s selection process resulted in the development of bigger, heavier sheep suited to the production of meat as well as wool, and he used the Lincoln Longwool to develop the Dishley, or new Leicester, which later evolved into the Bluefaced Leicester we know today.


This period coincided with a huge spike in population growth from 5.7 million in 1750, to 16.6 million people in 1850, all of whom needed to be fed on mainly home-produced food.


Fortunately, this coincided with increased agricultural output being achieved by new farming systems.


Much of this involved implementing rotations including turnips and clover, and while more land was being taken for arable crops, that which was available for livestock was much more productive than in the past.


These factors, combined with continued breed improvement, shifted the focus of the sheep industry towards meat rather than wool production.

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This period of growth was followed by the agricultural depression during the early part of the 20th century, not helped by increasing importation of cheap foreign food and two world wars. Britain joined the European Union in 1973, giving it access to European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).


This led to headage payments being introduced and, as a consequence, increasing numbers of sheep were kept resulting in over-production which impacted on the supply and demand.


In the CAP reform of 2003, these payments were decoupled and area payments introduced to encourage farmers to respond to market forces.


However, most hill farmers rely heavily on agri-environment schemes for income and complying with these by having to remove sheep from the hills over winter and reducing stocking densities threatens the hefted instincts and hardiness of some breeds as well as having a detrimental impact on habitats.


It has also resulted in the decline in numbers in some of the native breeds. There were 35,000 Lonk ewes in 2003 compared to 20,000 in 2012, with 32,000 Rough Fells down to 17,000, and 16,000 Derbyshire Gritstones down to 11,000.




The sheep industry, along with other livestock sectors, has suffered from disease outbreaks, notably the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 1967 when 430,00 animals were slaughtered on 2,300 farms.



The 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak saw sheep, which were being moved around the country in large numbers, being blamed for the initial rapid spread of the disease.


In a move to improve traceability and aid biosecurity, the six-day rule was introduced. This was followed by the introduction of EID tagging of sheep, with regulations since having been tightened to the point where all sheep apart from lambs being slaughtered under 12 months of age are double tagged.


While not without its problems, particularly at the start when it presented huge problems for auction marts and was not always well received by farmers, EID tagging it has undoubtedly, to a degree, forced the sector to embrace technology.


EID, in conjunction with the use of stick readers, computerised weighing and handling systems, gives farmers opportunity to utilise data to improve management.


Breeding programmes are also benefiting from technology. While the sheep industry has long lagged behind the pig, poultry and dairy sectors in terms of performance recording, a number of forward thinking producers having been doing this since the 1980s and before, albeit using a very simple system then.


Estimated breeding values (EBVs) came into being in the 1990s to measure genetic potential. They are constantly being refined, with the range of traits, both terminal and maternal, expanding.




While many commercial and some pedigree breeders may be reluctant to trust in EBVs as well as visual assessment, there seems to be evidence that this is changing.


Oestrus synchronisation and artificial insemination (AI) in sheep has increased massively over the last two decades, particularly in the pedigree sector to facilitate wider use of rams either by sharing or using frozen semen, and is increasingly being used in commercial flocks to tighten the lambing period.


Embryo transfer is also now widely used in pedigree flocks as producers strive to maximise genetics.


The sheep industry has constantly evolved and will have to continue do so now more than ever to meet the challenges of Brexit, climate change and changing market trends.

The Dishley, or new Leicester, which evolved into the Bluefaced Leicester
The Dishley, or new Leicester, which evolved into the Bluefaced Leicester



THE UK has about 90 different breeds of sheep, including crosses and composites, more than any other country in the world.


Breeds native to UK have evolved over time and in 1800 there were about 20 recognisable breeds with the Wiltshire, Dorset and Exmoor Horn in existence. Many breeds of the same name today may bear little resemblance to their predecessors.


The Suffolk, the main native terminal sire used today, evolved by crossing the Southdown and Norfolk Horn breeds. The first classes for Suffolk sheep were at the Suffolk Show in 1859 and the first flock book published in 1887.


The first North of England Mules were bred in Cumbria and Northumberland in the early 20th century by putting a Bluefaced Leicester ram onto hill breeds, either a Swaledale or Northumberland Blackface.


This was followed in the early 1950s by using the same sire on Scottish Blackface ewes to produce Scottish Mules, with a similar process used in Wales with a Bluefaced Leicester ram used on Welsh Mountain, Beulah Speckled-face or Welsh Hill Speckled-face ewe.




Since then, the influence of the Mule as a maternal breed to produce prime lambs when put to a terminal sire has been huge and they can now be found in most counties of the UK.


One of the biggest influences on the sheep industry has been the introduction of continental breeds, although ironically many of these in their early years were influenced by British native breeds exported to Europe, such as the Leicester Longwool and Wensleydale.


Texel sheep originate from the island of Texel off Holland and in 1933 the breed was imported to France.


In 1970, four Texel rams were imported to the UK by the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO).


In 1973, 13 Lanarkshire breeders in conjunction with ABRO bought 27 females and 13 rams from France which was followed by further importations.




The breed has since had a huge influence of the UK sheep industry, with the 2012 AHDB sheep breeds survey showing 27 per cent of all sires used in the UK are Texel and 12 per cent of all ewes are Texel sired.


Charollais from France followed the Texels to the UK shortly afterwards, with the first consignment of five ewe lambs and a ram imported by the Barber family from Norfolk who were instrumental in setting up the Charollais Sheep Society.


Many other continental breeds have headed to the UK since then, including the Bleu du Maine, Rouge and Berrichon and more recently the Blue Texel and Dutch Spotted breeds.


Beltex sheep arrived in the UK from Belgium in 1989 and brought a new dimension to British lamb production with their double muscled traits.


Their influence and popularity has grown rapidly and now are a major force in prime lamb and carcase competitions and command premium prices in primestock rings.


In more recent years, the popularity of composite breeds and the use of cross-bred rams has increased as producers strive to improve efficiency.

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