Scientists bid to breed sheep with reduced impact on environment

Scientists are working to breed sheep which produce less greenhouse gases in order to reduce their impact on the environment.

The Grass to Gas initiative will combine international scientific and industry expertise to measure two key factors affecting the environmental consequences of the livestock – feed efficiency and methane emissions.

Its goal is to develop new ways to identify animals with a lower impact, which can then be selected as part of breeding programmes.

Nicola Lambe, a sheep geneticist at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), said: “The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue requiring a trans-national and trans-disciplinary approach.

“The project aims to produce tools to measure, or accurately predict, feed efficiency and methane emissions from both individual animals and sheep systems, which will provide the international industry with the means to breed, feed and manage sheep with reduced environmental impact as part of genetic improvement initiatives.

“It will also contribute towards addressing the argument about the effect of eating meat on global warming, with sheep making use of land often unsuitable for other agricultural production, except conifers – at least in the UK.”

The first phase of the three-year project, which runs until September 2022, will test different methods for their ability to accurately predict feed intake and methane emissions from sheep.

Using technologies which show promise, researchers will then investigate the relationship between these two factors from sheep housed both indoors and at pasture.

Genetic control of emissions and feeding will also be looked at in the project, by assessing the differences due to breed, parent, genetic line or breeding values.

The research led by SRUC will use lambs bred from male sheep – known as sires – sourced from the Texel Sheep Society’s Texelplus programme, to investigate the effects of sire and breeding values on these measurements.

Data will also be analysed to quantify the economic and environmental benefits of improvements in feed efficiency and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The UK part of the project will receive £250,000 in funding from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Research Council of Norway and New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries.