Defra awards £2.9m to project designed to breed low methane sheep
The National Sheep Association (NSA) will begin work alongside industry partners to help deliver a new project designed to breed low methane producing sheep, in turn helping sheep farmers make a positive contribution to UK agriculture’s journey towards net zero.
The project was launched following an award of £2.9 million from Defra’s farming Innovation Programme.
Called ‘Breed for CH4nge – Breeding Low Methane Sheep’ and led by sheep genetics company Innovis, the three-year initiative will measure methane emissions from a total of 13,500 sheep in 45 flocks, collect the necessary data and build and develop the tools required to genetically reduce methane emissions and improve the efficiency of the national flock. The project looks to eventually demonstrate the impact of low-carbon sheep on whole farm carbon footprints.
The project will bring together performance-recording sheep breeder groups including Sheep Improvement Group (SIG), Exlana, Performance Recorded Lleyn Breeders (PRLB) and the Centurion Group of Dorset Sheep Breeders as well as Innovis to deliver the research and host on-farm events.
Scientific input, technology and additional genetics expertise will be provided by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and Harper Adams University, while Signet Breeding Services, part of AHDB, will provide performance recording services.
Industry and supply chain partners – Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), Pilgrims Pride and Waitrose, will help steer farm system modelling including the use of carbon calculators and will drive an integrated knowledge exchange (KE) programme.
The NSA said that it provide “a direct and important link” with the wider industry and a ‘guiding hand’ regarding policy issues.
“We have to move faster in terms of farming being a solution to climate change.”Phil Stocker
Commenting on the launch, NSA chief executive Phil Stocker said: “NSA is delighted to be a partner in Breed for CH4nge and I see this as a highly significant research and development project to move the UK’s sheep industry forward in terms of productivity gains, alongside reducing methane emissions and improving carbon footprints. These outcomes are directly aligned to overcome some of the challenges placed at the door of UK agriculture in this post CAP era.
“We have to move faster in terms of farming being a solution to climate change and play our part in the UK’s ‘30% methane reduction by 2030’ targets agreed during COP 26. Through this work the consortium will identify ways to reduce our emissions but also ensure we do this in a way that maintains the wide range of sustainability traits inherent in many of our flocks. Importantly the project is designed so that, in time, lessons will be able to be adopted by any breed and breeders and I see that as key to improving our genetics without diluting our genetic pool.”
Innovation and improvement
The project will initially develop on-farm protocols and use new innovative tools and technologies including Portable Accumulation Chambers (PAC) to predict methane emissions from grazing sheep alongside measures of health, production and efficiency traits at the individual animal level.
Further measurements, including rumen size and microbiota, will improve understanding of the underlying biology and ensure that reductions in methane emissions positively contribute to sustainable genetic improvement of ewe productivity on UK grass and forage.
The NSA said that this information will enable understanding of the genetic control of these characteristics, and DNA sampling will allow relationships with the underlying genome of the sheep to be investigated. This will result in tools to compare the breeding value of sheep in the flocks, identifying breeding stock that will contribute to improving farm carbon footprint.
To widen the Breed for CH4nge project’s impact beyond the 45 flocks involved, there are plans to roll out a wide-reaching communication programme with other sheep breeders and farmers throughout England, in collaboration with supply chain partners and wider industry bodies, including NSA. The initiative will be designed to identify the most effective ways of communicating the project’s outputs and implications to other farmers and help support them to make genetic changes.