A Hill Ram Scheme flock

A Welsh farmer has lauded an industry-led pilot that investigated worm resistance and resilience in hill sheep with a crucial data set to improve the efficiency of his flock.

Hybu Cig Cymru– Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) launched the trial in autumn 2022 as part of the Hill Ram Scheme, with research identifying genetic differences between sheep in their ability to acquire resistance to internal worm parasites.

With the increased ability of worms to survive the normal dose of wormer treatments, worm control is a key issue for sheep farmers to consider to ensure efficiency and profitability.

The desire is to find an approach that is less reliant on veterinary intervention to treat parasitic infections and therefore improve the health of sheep, drive down costs, and reduce the labour requirements.

Ten farmers from the Hill Ram Scheme provided 999 sheep for the trial, which assessed the feasibility of developing estimated breeding values (EBVs) for traits that assess the genetic ability of sheep to resist infection from worms.

Breeding sheep that are both resistant and resilient to parasites is a huge step forward for the industry; this research has been the first of its kind of take place.  

One farmer who took part in the research was Peter James. Peter and his father Alwyn run Hafod y Pant farm above Llandovery and have a second holding on Bannau Brycheiniog in Trecastle.

They supplied 150 improved Welsh mountain lambs to the trial, which has already provided some key data for the farm business.

Peter, who farms 1,500 ewes across the two holdings, said: “Everything to do with the trial has been very positive and I sincerely hope the project receives support to extend its lifespan.”

“Whatever happens, I will be repeating the process of the pilot this year because we have already seen some benefits.”

“One ram in the flock was highlighted as being prone to worm infection, so we were able to cut our losses and remove him from our breeding programme.”

“We can also follow that process through with his daughters to prevent any further negative impact on the flock, which is a huge development for us.”

Dr Heather McCalman, HCC Programme Delivery Coordinator, explained why the pilot was so important.

“Worms are very prevalent in most sheep systems and can cause severe damage to the stomach lining resulting in significant weight loss and illness. Across the industry here in Wales, we are all looking to achieve a healthy and productive flock.

“Climate change is also playing a part in this. Worms respond to warm weather and moisture, but with the seasons changing it means farmers can be less sure of when to treat their flock.

“Using techniques like faecal egg count reduction tests, farmers have found that treatments over time have become less effective and are looking into sustainable approaches; using genetics is key factor in our work to ensure healthy animals and that quality food is produced for our consumers.”

The Hill Ram Scheme is one of three five-year projects in the Red Meat Development Programme, which is funded by the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government. It has aimed to empower Welsh hill farmers with data and genetic information about their flocks by utilising the latest DNA technology, allowing traditional systems to be complemented by the latest scientific interventions.

Over 50 farmers from across Wales have taken part in the scheme.

Further information on the Hill Ram Scheme, as well as the Red Meat Development Programme as a whole, can be found here on the HCC website.