Investigating the unique abilities of the Herdwick Sheep Breed

Investigating the unique abilities of the Herdwick Sheep Breed

Herdwicks are commercially farmed in Cumbria and provide income for their local communities.

The breed consists of 65,000 sheep, with more than 95% of the entire number concentrated in one geographical region – within the Lake District National Park, that has recently been awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status.

Herdwicks are adapted to the harsh environments of the high fells and thrive in conditions too hostile to sustain any other breed. Within the UK, the less favoured areas of uplands account for 45% of total farmed area. A breed of sheep, adapted to the high fell uplands, such as the Herdwick, can produce food from land incapable of supporting most other forms of agriculture.

The project, involving the Farmer-Scientist Network of the Yorkshire Agriculture Society and The Sheep Trust, is investigating the genetics underpinning this unique and highly useful ability of the Herdwicks.

Advances in the technologies of genomics means that many thousands of genes in a genome can be studied in parallel. This enables scientific questions to be answered rapidly.

Using these skills and working closely with Dr Amanda Carsen of the FSN and The Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, Professor Dianna Bowles OBE, Chair of the Sheep Trust is undertaking a research project in collaboration with the University of York.

The aim is to understand the impact of the environment and the climate on Herdwick genetics in order to start to define those unique abilities that enable the breed to adapt and thrive on the high fells.

The impact of results from the study will be considerable for our fundamental understanding and also, significantly, to inform policy decisions safeguarding the UK’s farm animal genetic resources and how to continue to manage the fell environments of the Lake District through Herdwick farming.

Results will be published in due course.

Photograph kindly provided and copyrighted by Prof Dianna Bowles OBE

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