We visit one of the farms involved in the new Farming Connect Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme.

A sheep needs to be hardy to thrive in terrain that rises to 590 metres at the edge of the rugged Rhinogydd mountains in the Eryri National Park. 

Bryn Hughes and Sarah Carr have only been farming the 541hectare holding towering above the Mawddach estuary since March this year, having relocated from Monmouthshire where they ran a commercial lowland flock.

The environment of the two farms could not be more different but the couple believe that genetics holds the key to developing a flock that is well adapted to conditions at Sylfaen. 

The flock includes 900 Improved Welsh and Improved Welsh x Aberfield ewes they acquired with the farm; they also have 200 commercial ewes that came with them from Monmouthshire.

“In a hill farm situation, we can’t necessarily change the conditions to suit the sheep, so we decided to focus on producing an animal that is better equipped to succeed in this environment, particularly in terms of resilience to disease,’’ explains Sarah, who combines farming with her work as a locum vet.

With that ambition, they applied to join the new Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme to genetically improve their hill flock through performance recording.

Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) will be used to improve selected traits, in Bryn and Sarah’s case to produce a hardier Welsh ewe that is able to utilise the mountain grazing efficiently, lamb outdoors, rear a strong single lamb, and be resilient to disease.

“We have identified quite a few environmental and health challenges for the flock since we moved here. There are large populations of ticks, which carry several tick-borne diseases, as well as fluke and other internal parasites,’’ says Sarah.

“By selecting sheep which are genetically better equipped to deal with these challenges, over time we aim to reduce the need for treatments, reducing the risk of drug resistance and the amount of these products that are entering the environment.’’

Hardiness is a goal too. 

The hill flock previously benefitted from additional lowland grazing, allowing the relatively high number of twins to be finished there, but Bryn and Sarah aim to produce a tougher ewe that can thrive at Sylfaen all year round. 

“We need sheep that want to live at the top of the hill, with the ability to efficiently convert rough grazing all year round without going out on tack,’’ says Bryn, who also works as a sheep and beef specialist at Wynnstay.

The farm includes 63ha of in-bye pasture land and the remainder is rough hill grazing and ‘ffridd’, the area between the hill and the in-bye land. 

Talybont Welsh and Aberfield rams were used previously but this year they will change to use a Hardy Welsh Mountain-type.  Rams coming to Sylfaen will have EBVs and will be bred locally with prior exposure to ticks which develops immunity.  

They also aim to reduce the number of twins in the March-lambing hill flock, reducing the scanning rate to 115%, and producing a lamb that is 32kg liveweight at slaughter. 

With the expertise available as a Tier 1 flock in the Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme, those rams will be sourced this autumn.

Ahead of tupping, ewes will be gathered, and 200 will be selected to be DNA genotyped, weight recorded and condition scored to form the nucleus flock of performance recorded ewes at Sylfaen.

DNA genotyping the offspring next year will then provide the information Bryn and Sarah need to decide which rams and ewes produce the offspring most suited to Sylfaen.

“We are not interested in individual performance but in flock performance,’’ Sarah points out.

“Keeping an efficient flock should be the ambition of every sheep farmer, but there are many definitions of efficiency.  For us, it means having sheep that are able to succeed in their environment, with less intervention.’’

Reducing ewe and lamb losses will also reduce the flock’s environmental impact, she adds. “Diseases and losses massively increase that impact. The most efficient farm is one that rears healthy animals.’’

Sarah says the Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme provides a “great opportunity’’ for sheep farmers to measure and monitor their flocks. 

Thirty two new flocks have been recruited into each of the two tiers, and 40 flocks involved in the predecessor Hill Ram Scheme are now a part of the new programme too.

Tier 1 is specific to hill and upland breeds while Tier 2 is for specific breeds including the Blue Faced Leicester, Lleyn, Charmoise Hill and Romney. 

Gwawr Williams, Head of Sheep Genetics at Menter a Busnes, which delivers Farming Connect on behalf of the Welsh Government, says farmers are increasingly realising the benefits of improving their flock through genetics.

Participating flocks will benefit from financial support for data collection, advice and guidance on setting achievable targets for flock improvements, opportunities to improve knowledge and understanding of different topics impacting genetic progress, and an opportunity to be involved in innovative research projects. 

Each flock will have a breeding action plan, a dynamic working document that will follow the flock through the project, says Gwawr.

“We are gathering initial key performance indicators and information on participating flocks, and will identify areas for improvement to focus on genetically, but also areas which may impact genetic progress such as underlying health issues and so on, and help farmers to improve on these for maximum benefit.’’