Hertfordshire is home to a ‘pioneering project’ to breed an ultra-low emission sheep that could emit 25% less methane.
Agri-EPI Centre is working with Kaiapoi Farm in Hertfordshire to measure methane emissions from a group of Romney rams, and identify those that produce the least. They will then be selected to be bred, in the hope of creating youngstock which produce less methane.
Funded by the UK Government via Innovate UK, the project is carrying on research done with Romney sheep in New Zealand, which demonstrated that methane emission levels could be a heritable trait in sheep.
Predicting a flock’s methane production could be cut by up to 25%, the project will work by keeping individual sheep in a portable accumulation chamber for an hour, and collecting and measuring the gas it emits.
“Methane emissions from livestock production are an important contributor to climate change, and farmers are under pressure to act,” said Ross Robertson, Head of Mixed Farming at Agri-EPI Centre, adding the scheme could “provide huge benefits to the UK and international sheep sector, and to the pursuit of sustainable food production.
“If we can breed a demonstrable reduction into the system, the potential for climate change mitigation and for the economic health of the sector is very strong indeed.”
Rob Hodgkins, from Kaiapoi Farm, said: “We are looking for that needle in the haystack: a low-methane, parasite-resistant sheep with a high growth rate and high lambing rates. As technology demonstrators, the more we breed successfully and test, the more we can determine the efficiencies gained by rearing cross-bred animals on a New Zealand system. There are hundreds of thousands of sheep this could be extended to across the UK.“
He said the project is “great because it demonstrates how livestock producers can be part of the solution to produce food sustainably rather than being the problem. It’s not the whole answer, obviously, but if we can cut methane emissions by 15% without reducing productivity and do so relatively quickly and cheaply, it would go some way.“
Though he said a few people are looking at methane reduction in cows, he described the sheep-breeding project as “unique” and said because sheep give birth to “only one lamb or set of lambs each year, we need to take a relatively long-term view of the project.”
But he predicted that “within ten years, domestic and global commercial interest in low-methane livestock will be very high. By doing the work just now, we will be in a strong position to maintain our commercial advantage.“
In a few years, he said sheep producers will be able to “look at what we have done, what we have achieved in terms of methane reduction and, as a breed society, individual or collection of farmers consider this as an avenue that they can go down too.”