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Developing easy care sheep

Falling wool prices initiated the idea of breeding easy care sheep with less wool in some areas. Here, Dr David Scobie explains how the research began.

When prices for wool began to drop, scientists began to think about how much wool was necessary on sheep – this is how the idea of the easy care sheep came about. However, convincing farmers that less wool was a good idea and getting funding weren’t straightforward, as Dr David Scobie explains.

Questions to consider:
What factors influenced the idea to have less wool on sheep?
What factors might cause some farmers to be reluctant to accept the idea of breeding these traits into their sheep?
What is the role of an animal ethics committee?


Dr David Scobie(AgResearch):
The major problem with the largest number of sheep breeds that we have here in New Zealand was they were developed in a time when wool was like white gold, and so the more wool you could push onto the sheep, logically, the better it must be. So in the 1950s, say, they were trying to get wool from the nose to the toes.

And we took a look at that 12 years ago, and the way the price of wool was going and the way the costs of harvesting it and keeping those sheep were going, plus the welfare of those animals that have to carry all that wool around, we decided, look, the best wool comes off the major fleece area, we would like to see a bit of wool come off the head, back of the legs, none on the belly, none on the backside, and that would make it a lot easier to harvest. We would just have good clean fleece wool – there would be a lot less handling and lots of wool going off the farm – so it would make a lot more sense in that respect.

When we first started this project, that actually conflicted with the belief systems of the people that we were talking to, so it was difficult to convince them and therefore it was difficult to get funding. You can see the arguments that people breeding those sheep – they thought, well, alright, if you are going wool off these sheep, we are going to pay shearers 2 dollars to shear them whether they are really woolly or not so woolly, so we will get as much wool as we can on those sheep.

As time went on and the profitability of farming sheep for wool eroded and profitability of farming for meat improved, people started to realise, right, we might need these sheep who have a little bit less wool, it’s a little bit cheaper to run them, and we will get more out of the meat part of the enterprise.

There were a variety of organisations that we went to. Some outright rejected our ideas, and others thought, yeah, that's not a bad idea. Because we were just using simple selection breeding, we didn't have to go to any of the organisations like ERMA because we weren't genetically engineering the sheep genome. We weren't taking anything from outside and putting it into that genome. One important group that we did have to consult with – which you have to do for any animal used in research, testing or teaching – we had to consult with an animal ethics committee and they had to give us approval to use animals in these experiments. They were sort of overjoyed because we are actually trying to improve the welfare of animals by doing this project.

Circa 1930s Cameron family: Photographs (05-37). Ref: 05-37/56.digital, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
 October 1954 original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 11 (PAColl-6304). Ref: PACOLL-6304-01, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
 1956 Wairarapa Arts Centre : Photographs (90-017). Ref: 90-017/335 , Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Mrs H Beetham, National Library Timeframes.


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