Who is the Maternal Sheep Group? – Bobby Lennox, Chair
The Maternal Sheep Group came together in 2012 with performance recording Blackface breeders joining with wool shedding Easy Cares to share areas common to maternal performance recording. Recently they have been joined by Lleyn breeders. The farms within the group cover a massive geographical range from the coast to the Highlands of Scotland.
Maternal Sheep Group (MSG) represent over 5,000 performance recorded ewes over 10 farms across Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. The joint aim of the members of the MSG is to provide sheep that do the job with less labour to increase profitability.
Members have been selecting ewes and rams for easier management traits, such as ease of lambing, shedding and foot health, for over 15 years, alongside a focus on estimated breeding values (EBVs). Now maternal ability sits alongside carcase traits within the group’s objective to ensure the breeding females are great mothers right while lambs are hitting market specifications.
The group focuses on performance recording by ensuring good connectedness, developing new EBVs and sharing experience of data collection and handling. For example, the Blackface breeders first joined together as part of the original sire referencing scheme to ensure good connectedness.
Performance recording is fundamental when selecting for maternal traits as can’t be seen by eye. The flocks will be grouping ewes with a ram in autumn with the aim of balancing the traits in the sheep. Then at lambing, the lambs will be recorded at birth (weights, litter size, date of birth) with some of the members lambing indoors to make this job easier. The lambs will be weighed at around eight weeks of age and then again around 20 weeks when most of the lambs will be ultrasound scanned. These records are then sent to Signet www.signetfbc.co.uk (or Sheep Ireland as well if you are Campbell Tweed!!) for processing, along with pedigree information, into EBVs. For most of the breeds involved in MSG, they focus on the Hill Index, which has been designed to enhance the overall productivity of the ewe by improving several traits simultaneously, most significantly the number of lambs successfully reared. Once the reports are back, we can start selecting our future breeding stock, along with a physical examination and any records, such as lameness or lack of shedding.
It is important to remember that the ewes and lambs throughout this process are generally on a hill with hill grazing or semi-improved grass and being exposed to the range of climates seen in the UK. Plus they are exposed to tough selection pressure by the breeder.
Performance recording is a serious investment for the members, both in terms of fees to the organisations who process the records but also in terms of time and energy from the breeder. The ambition is that the hard work done by the breeders means that the sheep produced require less labour.
I am the current chair with George King the vice chair and Peter Myles the current treasurer. More details of the members can be seen on the website.