Breeding gains for the sheep sector

Published on 6 July 2011 in Sustainability and Communities

SRUC (formerly SAC) research has been fundamental in the development, implementation and enhancement of UK sheep improvement programmes. It has brought about significant genetic and economic improvements across all sheep industry sectors, estimated to be worth £17.8 million. If replicated across the entire UK industry, these would produce benefits of £111 million over 20 years. This research is crucial to maintaining rural communities and Scotland’s reputation for producing high quality lamb.

Flock of sheep on the road

Key Challenges

Lamb production contributes to provide an important contribution to national agricultural output and impacts on rural employment, sustainability, food safety, landscape and biodiversity. If the Scottish sheep industry is to remain competitive and continue as a major producer and exporter of high quality lamb, breeding goals should be developed to meet challenges such as disease resistance, efficiency and environmental impacts. Practical tools must also be developed to exploit emerging technologies, such as molecular-genetics and new ways of assessing carcasses and meat quality.

Key Benefits

Animal breeding research at SRUC, funded by the Scottish Government and others, has played a fundamental role in UK genetic sheep improvement programmes and the development/uptake of new breeding tools.

The research has delivered information on the optimal design of breeding schemes and produced practical selection tools. SRUC results have been adopted directly by the UK sheep industry (and beyond), including selection indices for cooperative breeding programmes (Sire Referencing Schemes), best use of new measurement tools for carcass quality (ultrasound, CT scanning, Video Image Analysis) and assessment of disease (e.g. footrot scoring). For example, in vivo CT-based information is now included in UK selection programmes and can accelerate the response to selection for carcass traits (tissue weights, muscularity) in sheep progeny by 7-20%. New SRUC scoring systems for sheep hoof lesions were integrated into the Scottish Government’s criteria for the Animal Welfare Management Option 23 for farmers in 2010. SRUC has also promoted uptake directly via the Edinburgh Genetic Evaluation Services-EGENES, which provides livestock genetic evaluation and data handling services.

“SRUC research has brought about significant genetic and economic improvements to the sheep industry worth around £17.8 million. If replicated across the entire UK industry, these would produce benefits worth around £111 million over 20 years."

The benefits from 10 years of genetic progress at recently-achieved rates in hill sheep, crossing sire and terminal sire breeding programmes is estimated to be £5.3, £1.0 and £11.5 million, respectively, over a 20 year period. If dissemination of genetic material could realise such rates of change across the entire ram breeding industry, the combined benefits are estimated to be worth £110.8 million. In addition, current selection indices are also predicted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (kg CO2e/ewe/annum) by 1.42% and 0.02% in crossing (upland) and terminal sire (lowland) sheep systems, respectively.

Molecular genetic tests for footrot and muscling have been comprehensively evaluated under UK conditions, and recommendations made to maximise benefits and avoid any associated detrimental developments. For example, New Zealand genotyping tests for footrot were shown to be ineffective, so not recommended, for some UK breeds, saving industry investment in inappropriate technologies.

Easy care sheep and lambsBlackface ewes and lambs

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Our Partners

Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, Aberystwyth University, Institute of Biological and Environmental and Rural Sciences.

Find Out More

For more information contact Dr Lutz Bunger, Team Leader - Growth Genetics at SRUC or Dr Joanne Conington, Livestock Geneticist at SRUC via their research profiles above.


Dr Lutz Bunger

Dr Joanne Conington


Sustainability and Communities