Research by SRUC has led to the development of a number
of genetic tools to improve lamb survival. Behavioural traits that are
important for lamb survival, such as lamb ‘get up and go’, can now by
measured quickly and simply by farmers, using scores based on lamb
behaviour. These scores are under genetic control, so farmers will now
have the option to select rams for better lamb survivability, based on
improved lamb vigour.
Lamb mortality averages 15% of lambs born across all sheep
producing countries, although the mortality on some farms may be much
higher. Ewe management can improve lamb survival but, despite much
research in this area, lamb mortality has proved to be a difficult
figure to reduce. This constrains profitable, sustainable and high
welfare sheep production. New approaches to the problem, such as those
developed by SRUC, are needed to achieve better survival and improve
both farm livelihoods and sheep welfare.
In the UK an average loss of 15% of lambs before weaning
equates to about 2.7 million lambs being lost each year. This means lost
revenue to the producer, at a potential annual cost of £160 million
pounds to the UK sheep industry. It also constrains the ability of
marginal areas, in particular, to produce food. In addition,
reproductive inefficiency, where ewes fail to produce and rear lambs,
increases the carbon footprint of sheep production. This means a greater
number of animals are needed to produce the same outputs. An increase
in lamb survival of 3% a year would increase productivity by nearly half
a million lambs. This would add £25 million to the economy and reduce
by more than 300,000 the number of ewes required to produce an
equivalent quantity of lamb.
At the farm level, labour directed towards keeping lambs alive can
account for up to 28 person hours per 100 lambs. Farms face considerable
costs to buy in labour to meet these needs. Using on-farm labour to
meet these requirements takes up time that might be spent more
An increase in lamb survival of 3% a year would increase productivity by nearly a million lambs, adding £36 million to the economy and reducing by more than half a million the number of ewes required to produce an equivalent quantity of lamb.
In addition to the financial and environmental benefits of improving
lamb survival, the loss of so many lambs is a cause for welfare concern.
Improving animal welfare is believed to be a societal benefit. The UK
has an often-expressed concern for animal welfare, ranking it as the most important food-related concern in 2010. Any action that improves animal welfare will therefore have an important benefit to society.
The support from Scottish Government for this area of research over
the last 17 years has secured an excellent foundation of scientific
research. This has provided leverage to obtain a range of new funding
sources. These have included BBSRC, BioSciences KTN and the support of
commercial sheep breeders. The introduction of the new Scottish
Government research Programme 2011-16 will bring new dimensions of
research to the work by making these tools and knowledge more widely
available to encourage greater uptake and participation by sheep
producers. This will broaden the scope of this research to bring about a
substantial increase in the survival of lambs in the UK.
Dr Cathy Dwyer - SRUC Research Profile
SRUC Animal Behaviour & Welfare
This work was funded by the Scottish Government RESAS Strategic Research Programme and more recently with
BioSciences KTN, BBSRC and Suffolk Sheep Society.
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Author: Dr Cathy Dwyer Cathy.Dwyer@sruc.ac.uk
Visit Dr Cathy Dwyer - SRUC Research Profile