24 August 2023
New genetics to help progress the advancement of wool shedding sheep in Wales have been introduced into three Welsh flocks.
The farmers, who all run flocks of EasyCare sheep, were brought together by the Farming Connect Agrisgôp initiative.
Huw Thomas, who farms at Fferm Pentre, Aberarth, and had opted for EasyCare sheep because of the breed’s easy lambing and low-cost attributes, was initially interested in exploring how genetics from the southern hemisphere could help further advance his breeding programme.
He contacted Agrisgôp leader Jessica Williams and she formed an Agrisgôp group with two other sheep farming businesses who shared Huw’s aspirations - John and Hedd Davies, who run 800 Easycares at Cefn Coch, Llanilar, and Dafydd Evans, of Dolau Brics, Llanwrin.
Designed to make connections and build networks, Agrisgôp enabled the group to broaden their knowledge on an international level as Jessica arranged a series of meetings for the group, including early morning Zoom calls to Australia. They also connected with Ian McDougall, a sheep breeder based in Shropshire, who is involved in embryo transfer and AI programmes globally, and others including Haydn Wooley, who is adding southern hemisphere genetics to his own flock in Shropshire.
The farmers were initially interested in using the Australian White for breeding but eventually opted for the Polled Wiltshire from New Zealand.
“Ian advised us that the Polled Wiltshire would tick all the boxes on our list and that they are well suited to the Welsh climate’’ says Huw.
Ian invested in four rams and imported these from New Zealand in November 2022.
Semen was taken from these and the Agrisgôp group inseminated ewes with this; all their EasyCares are carriers of the myostatin gene.
Huw, who had a 60% success rate on the 20 ewes he inseminated and achieved a scanning percentage of 145%, said the first crosses born in the 2023 lambing season were extremely lively at birth.
“I have always believed the EasyCaresheep possess extra precocity but I have never seen lambs move as quickly as those first crosses,’’ he says. “Their very tight coats, which are ideal for protecting them against the high level of rainfall we get in Ceredigion, are a pleasure to see.’’
For John and Hedd, 70% of the 30 ewes they inseminated held to service and they achieved a scanning rate of 150%.
The progeny, born at the beginning of May, were everything they had hoped for - and more.
“They had their heads up looking for the teat as soon as they were born, they have more vigour and are faster growing than the rest of our lambs,’’ says John.
As a consequence, the Davies’ hope to buy two Polled Wiltshire rams of their own from New Zealand.
The support of Agrisgôp has been invaluable, says John. “We have got to know people with similar goals to our own and broadened our knowledge.’’
The fully-funded management development programme encourages eligible farmers and growers to get together to not only develop their businesses, but to personally gain confidence and skills through action learning.
With direct subsidies ending in 2024 and significant changes to agricultural support ahead, Huw suggests sheep farmers have got to “think outside the box’’ by adjusting their systems.
“We wouldn’t have been able to achieve what we have without the contacts we gained through Agrisgôp,’’ he admits.
Using imported Polled Wiltshires will add to the existing gene pool, says Huw, and possibly allow the introduction of an extra degree of hybrid vigour.
“I predict that in a few years’ time wool shedding sheep won’t be known by the different names they are today; they will simply be known as wool shedders.
“A huge percentage of sheep in Wales will be wool shedding in the next 10 to15 years.’’
Farming Connect are planning to support a further 28 Agrisgôp groups over the next two years and are eager to hear from groups of farmers who have an innovative business idea that they wish to explore.