A performance-recording project across 107 flocks in Wales has set out with the ambition of improving the efficiency of Welsh sheep flocks.
A sheep needs to be hardy to thrive in the rugged Rhinogydd mountains in Eryri National Park.
Bryn Hughes and Sarah Carr have only been farming the 541-hectare holding towering above the Mawddach estuary since March , 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 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.’’
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.
They also aim to reduce the number of twins in the March-lambing hill flock, reducing the scanning rate to 115 per cent, 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.
Sarah says the Welsh Sheep Genetics Programme provides a “great opportunity’’ for sheep farmers to measure and monitor their flocks.