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  • Easy care sheep, developed by AgResearch to save money and improve sheep welfare, may challenge traditional views of what sheep should look like. So what is an easy care sheep?

    Easy care sheep challenge traditional views

    Traditionally, sheep farmers bred sheep to grow wool ‘from the nose to the toes’, believing a heavier fleece brought greater return. Recently, scientists have identified that too much wool in some areas, such as legs, belly and backside, makes sheep more difficult and costly to look after.

    Rights: Acknowledgement: Liam O’Malley

    Traditional Merino sheep

    In the 1950s and earlier when wool prices were high, New Zealand sheep were bred to grow as much wool as possible.

    Dr David Scobie of AgResearch, in a recent research project, has bred sheep with less wool in key areas, making it more cost-effective and productive. The new-look sheep challenges the traditional view of how sheep should look.

    The easy care sheep has been selectively bred to have traits such as:

    • bare belly
    • bare legs
    • short tail
    • bare head.
    Rights: AgResearch

    Bare backside of easy care sheep

    One of the traits of the easy care sheep is a bare backside, which reduces build up of dags.

    Less wool on backside reduces flystrike

    Wool on the backside and tail of a sheep collects dags – a build up of faeces. Flies are attracted to the dags, often leading to ‘flystrike’, which occurs when flies lay maggots in the fleece that then move onto the skin and damage it. This is a painful condition and, if left untreated, can cause death.

    Procedures used to minimise the problem of flystrike take time and cost farmers money. These include:

    • docking – removing the tail so it doesn’t collect dags
    • crutching – 2–3 times a year, farmers shear off the dirty wool around the sheep’s backside and, prior to lambing, shear the sheep’s belly to expose the udder
    • chemical treatment – used to kill the maggots when sheep are affected by flystrike.

    Dags and flystrike

    Dags and flystrike affect the welfare of sheep. Here, Dr David Scobie from AgResearch explains how they occur and their impact on sheep.

    Bare legs and belly easier to shear

    Wool on the legs and belly can collect seeds and dirt. Wool on the belly also makes the udder difficult for lambs to access for feeding and needs crutching before lambing.

    The sheep is more difficult to shear in these areas than the main body, slowing down the shearing process. Wool from these parts is also lower value than the main fleece and has to be sorted and bagged separately by the shed hands, adding to the labour costs of shearing.

    Easy care sheep benefits

    Easy care sheep were developed to lower costs and improve sheep welfare. AgResearch’s Dr David Scobie describes how easy care sheep traits meet these objectives and explains the benefits.

    Select here to view video transcript, terms to discuss and copyright information.

    Wool on face impairs vision

    When wool grows longer on the sheep’s face, it can affect the sheep’s ability to see, and grass seeds collect in the wool when the sheep is grazing. Like the legs and belly, this area is also more difficult to shear.

    Short tails collect fewer dags and improve welfare

    A long tail can be difficult for sheep to lift out of the way when they are defecating, so tail docking (removing the tail) has become a regular practice for New Zealand sheep farmers. The purpose of docking is to reduce the formation of dags, which can lead to flystrike. Animal welfare groups consider docking painful for sheep, and they oppose the practice.

    Rights: Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, University of Bristol

    Tail docking

    Tail docking helps control dags.

    The easy care sheep has a short tail, which is easier to lift and therefore doesn’t need docking. It also sheds the wool from its tail to minimise any build up of dags.

    Easy care sheep breeding is a success

    After many years of research, the easy care sheep breeding programme came to an end. David Scobie reported that of the nearly 2000 Wiltshire lambs weaned during the 13 years, there was only one case of flystrike. Reduced chemical inputs and no-shear sheep have saved farmers time and money, and they meet a growing consumer demand for more sustainable products.

      Published 18 July 2010, Updated 15 March 2018 Referencing Hub articles
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