Farm Ireland
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Sunday 19 November 2017

Farmers use DNA genetic technology in mission to preserve Mayo-Connemara Blackface sheep

PRESERVATION: Farmers in Mayo and Connemara plan to protect the native Mayo-Connemara Blackface by using the latest genetic technology and DNA testing kits
PRESERVATION: Farmers in Mayo and Connemara plan to protect the native Mayo-Connemara Blackface by using the latest genetic technology and DNA testing kits
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

Farmers in Mayo and Connemara, armed with DNA testing kits and the latest in genetic technology, have embarked on a mission to protect a native breed of sheep that was in danger of being lost forever through crossbreeding.

The Mayo-Connemara Blackface sheep is a particular breed type that evolved and adapted over centuries to survive the harsh conditions on the mountains of Connemara and west Mayo.

Grazing on heathers and rough grasses, Mayo-Connemara Blackface ewes were renowned as superb mothers who often produce eight or nine crops of lambs in a lifetime.

Their lambs are known as hardy creatures, up and about within minutes of being born.

The lambs reared on the mountains are also known for the superior taste of their meat, flavoured from eating diverse vegetation.

This unique flavour has been recognised by Europe with the awarding of the PGI (protected geographical indicator) status to the Connemara Hill Lamb.

The breed's good mothering traits have also made the breed popular as a dam breed on lowland sheep farms.

However in recent years, there has been a growing trend of crossing the Mayo-Connemara Blackface sheep with other Blackface types such as the Scotch, Lanark, Swaledale, Perth and Kerry Hill breeds.

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These moves threatened to dilute the hardiness of the Mayo-Connemara breed.

PRESERVE

For the past 12 months, farmers from Achill, Ballycroy, Newport, Louisburgh, Tourmaceady, Finney Clonbur and Recess/Roundstone in counties Galway and Mayo have been DNA testing their rams in an effort to preserve their valuable genetics.

Technicians from Sheep Ireland have taken saliva swabs from rams all over the region. The DNA is then analysed in the laboratory to identify pure Mayo-Connemara Blackface rams that farmers can use in their breeding programmes to help to preserve the breed's traits.

Sheep adviser John Noonan of Teagasc and Sheep Ireland are now helping farmers to set up a flock book for the breed.

"The forming of a flock book will give farmers better information when selecting rams and the Sheep Ireland platform can also be used by farmers to record more information on their lambs such as lambing difficulty, birth weights, weaning weights and longevity," he said.

"Over time, this will protect the Mayo-Connemara Blackface and give farmers information when making breeding decisions about their own flock."

Irish Independent