What is the difference between a sheep and a good sheep?

Writers Posted 13/10/21
No doubt there would be a degree of agreement on some physical attributes .

A simple question, but I can almost guarantee that if you asked 100 sheep farmers the same question, you would get 100 different answers, probably more than that, while some simply wouldn’t be able to make up their mind. No doubt there would be a degree of agreement on some physical attributes - good feet, udder, teeth and so on, the obvious stuff, although the latter seems to be of diminishing importance if experiences of judging interbreed competitions in various part of the country are anything to go by; to some, breed points seem to trump teeth. I will say no more and certainly wouldn’t be so bold as to mention any particular breeds for fear of causing offence.

Go beyond the obvious and things begin to get a little murkier, even when it comes to important parts of the ram anatomy such as testicles, some seemingly considering that the simple possession of a pair makes a good ram, or at least a suitable breeding ram. This view is readily confirmed by a quick look at any livestock marketing website, even some social media sites not really intended for selling.

The number of euphemisms conjured up to avoid mentioning “for sale” is a testament to man’s ingenuity: “looking for a new home/postcode”, “ready to move on”, “does anybody need…”, “would make a useful addition to someone’s flock”, “looking for pastures new”, the list is endless. At least the latter has some agricultural reference; some rams seem to be particularly precious, requiring their own address and/or postcode.

Rather disappointingly there seems to be an increasing number of mongrel rams being offered for sale; a few first cross rams that may have been bred with a specific purpose in mind, although this is not always immediately obvious, but many are simply “mongrels”. Many would appear to have been bred out of a mongrel ewe by a mongrel ram. Who would really want to buy such an animal? Such an approach reduces the poor ram simply to a pair of testicles on legs, something to get a few (no doubt mongrel) ewes into lamb. It completely disregards the most important aspect of any breeding ram, that is the genetic material contained within his testicles, the genetic potential that he has to improve.

There is generally only one market for this type of ram (or ewe) and that is not the breeding stock market. The overriding aim of good sheep breeding should be about improving subsequent generations. That improvement may be in breed type, maternal ability, efficiency, carcass quality etc.; it is not, or should not be, about using a few mediocre ewes put to a cheap ram to produce a bunch of scrappy, poor quality lambs and then having the audacity to moan about the prices received in the market. Such an approach does nobody any favours, not individual producers and certainly not the sheep industry.

It will be many of these types of lamb that will make a rather disproportionate contribution to the 40% or so of UK lambs that still fail to meet market specifications, lambs that will quite justifiably be discounted by buyers; all they serve to do is depress average market prices. Not everyone can produce top quality lambs. You simply can’t compare a well-grown Beltex cross with a lamb bred and reared on the Welsh Mountains, (but even many of the latter will at least meet market specification, even if at the lower end of the range). Their specific qualities may owe more to their origin. But we can all try; a process that will often start by purchasing (at a fair price) and using good quality, well-bred, rams.

Nobody can produce a good ram for £120 to £150, so why would anybody want to purchase one? If a ram is being offered for sale at that sort of price, in all honesty it probably should have been slaughtered. It simply defies logic, but it will go on and on. I guarantee that at the last ram sale of the season, in any market, there will be buyers looking to purchase a “bargain ram”, a mediocre ram that will, no doubt, be taken straight home and, with no preparation or appropriate biosecurity, tipped out of the trailer to join a bunch of mongrel ewes.

A considered first cross, that is a good hybrid, with all the advantages conferred by heterosis (hybrid vigour); OK, no problem, if it is considered and done with a purpose, but it should then be used for that purpose and that purpose only. A good looking, strong crossbred ram lamb is not a candidate for a breeding ram just because it happened to be born with a pair of testicles; neither is a Mule ram lamb (which was seen advertised this year). Mule ram put onto a Mule ewe (why else would anyone use a Mule ram?) will almost certainly not produce a Mule as we know it; any expectation of such an outcome simply demonstrates an almost complete lack of understanding of genetics, in particular meiosis, i.e., the production of haploid, sex cells.

The random shuffling and reallocation of genetic material twice during the process of meiosis will result in the genetic make up of any progeny of a Mule x Mule mating being somewhere between almost 100% Blue Faced Leicester and almost 100% Swaledale, (both perfectly good breeds, in the correct environment) and almost any other possible permutation of extremes. The chances of producing a fifty:fifty split of genes to produce a proper Mule are infinitesimally small.

Beyond that I must admit to a degree of bias, in as much as I am not a particular fan of sheep derived from multiple crosses, either ewes or rams; but as with many things there are exceptions, and a well-bred and carefully selected Suffolk Mule ewe just seems to work (as do a very few others). Even then, it is not unusual to find examples that probably owe rather more than they ought to their maternal grandmothers. Neither am I a particular fan of alien breeds being introduced into pure-bred lines of sheep, generally done surreptitiously with a view to gaining some advantage over other breeders; such dishonesty is simply not acceptable. I have no issue with breed improvement programmes, which is what sheep breeding should be about, but they should be open and transparent, even if this process involves the introduction of a second breed, for a specific purpose, and then breeding back to the original breed. But I will say no more on that for fear of causing offence.

To go on from a two-way or good three-way cross to produce four, five or six-way crosses is to fall into the same trap of denying what is simply relatively basic genetics. Some of the real mongrels produced, a cross of a cross of a cross, are straying into the realms of the geneticists who produced composite breeds such as the Meatlinc or Cambridge; the latter examples, however, were bred with a specific purpose and a high level of skill and understanding, rather than the former’s simple desire to produce some cheap sheep with little understanding of the outcome.

Developing a good new composite breed is far from straightforward; I remember quite clearly John Bryn Owen’s original Cambridge flock in its relatively early days. Having started in Cambridge in 1964 as a mix of six or seven different breeds, they arrived on the university farm at Bangor (after a spell in Aberdeen) in the late seventies. Even then, well over a decade into their development, it was relatively easy to pick out examples of most of the constituent breeds at lambing time. Developing a good, synthetic breed of sheep is not achieved by simply crossing a mongrel with a mongrel and hoping for the best; it takes time, a lot of time, a good understanding of genetics, scrupulous recording and hard culling.

The difference between a sheep and a good sheep is not just in what you can see (the phenotype) but is far more; it is also about what is contained within, the genotype; sadly, the latter is not quite so obvious, but a good sheep from a reputable breeder is likely to fall into the latter category rather than a nondescript “mongrel” of questionable origin. That said, a sheep with an excellent genotype is still not a good sheep if it also happens to look like a limping runner bean crossed with a doormat, undershot, knock-kneed and down on its pasterns. It still has to be a good sheep; it’s all about balance.

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