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British Sheep Back in the Fold as US Lifts Genetic Import Ban

27 July 2016

Proposed changes to long-standing legislation mean new opportunities are on the way for flocks on both sides of the Atlantic, writes John Wilkes.

Animal Health authorities in the US have put into consultation a plan to lift the import ban on live sheep, goats, their meat and genetic material from the UK.

The ban was originally put in place in 1989 in direct response to the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSE) crisis. TSE variants BSE and scrapie, found in cattle and sheep products respectively, can threaten human brain and nervous system function.

Importation of UK sheep semen was unaffected by the 1989 embargo. It did suffer a setback with a ban imposed in 2010 after visiting US Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors took issue with UK interpretation of agreed sheep health export protocols. It was lifted earlier this year.

From Monday 18 July, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), part of the USDA, has been inviting comments for a 60-day period on draft regulations to remove the 1989 ban.

Black Welsh Mountain sheep have high inbreeding rates in the US and could benefit from new rules

Phil Stocker, Chief Executive of the National Sheep Association (NSA), has welcomed the move. “It’s important to share UK genetics around the world, with countries using breeds that originated here or have strong involvement with the UK, to widen the genetic pool,” he said.

After APHIS concludes its review, should the restrictions be lifted, the full range of UK ovine genetics including embryos would become export permissible. For US breeders this would represent a significant opportunity for those raising sheep with strong genetic links to the UK, including Suffolks, Texels and Shropshires. The UK will then need to work to develop the US market.

The strength of the sheep industry in the UK means selection from more than 80 breeds, said Mr Stocker. “We’ve got an incredible range of genetics, breeds and types of sheep here in the UK. We are seen as the ‘go to’ stockyard in terms of quality sheep breeding.” The NSA will assist sheep breeders from the US seeking UK resources for locating breeding rams and semen collection facilities.

“Our breeders are excited about options for cost-effective semen importation,” said Judy St. Leger, President of the US Texel Sheep Breeders Society. “We look forward to working with UK breeders to bring in quality genetics from a variety of excellent UK Texel rams."

US Texel breeder Patrea Pabst of Dewey Rose, Georgia could be among the first to take advantage of the new freedom in genetic commerce. She recently visited the UK to scout rams for semen importation. Ms Pabst visited Ian Murray’s Glenway Texel flock near Wooler, Northumberland, and Robert Laird’s Cambwell Texels in Biggar, Scotland.

Texels in Robert Laird's flock in Biggar, Scotland. Photo credit: Patrea Pabst.

“The UK has an extraordinary database of Estimated Progeny Differences,” said Ms Pabst. “If I’m going to spend my dollars I want predictability of the genetic merit of a sire’s progeny. The raft of data available is incredibly valuable in this respect.”

Ms Pabst praised the flocks she visited on her trip: “The animals I saw in the Cambwell and Glenway flocks were so uniformly good; so many rams would be outstanding if they were here in the US.”

Comprehensive UK breed data is fundamentally important to Ms Pabst. “Generations of statistically significant analysis allows me to use UK rams with a higher degree of certainty,” she said. “We have predictability here [in the UK]. We know what we’re going to get and that’s what I hope to achieve with the semen I import from the UK.”

Ian Murray, owner of the Glenway flock Ms Pabst visited, is also keen to explore the opportunities the removal of the ban could create. “We were delighted to have the opportunity to show an American Texel breeder around,” he said. “Robert Laird and I would be very happy if our flock genetics could help develop US Texel sheep.”

Mr Murray added: “There is real value in having our Texel genetics among the first used in the States after the ban is lifted. The wider UK sheep industry can also benefit from this US exposure.”

Another Texel from Robert Laird's flock. Photo credit: Patrea Pabst.

Social media is already playing a role in promoting this new transatlantic trade. Ian Murray said he had been “amazed” by the global following that his Facebook page achieved. “In May we posted pictures of our lambs as we did our eight-week weight recording, and 6,500 people viewed it on Facebook,” he reported.

US-based heritage breeders of sheep breeds that originated in the UK will also have options. Since the semen ban came into force in 2010 these breeders have been starved of wider genetics, leading to shallower gene pools.

Dr Alison Martin, Executive Director of the North Carolina-based Livestock Conservancy, supports new legislation allowing UK heritage and traditional breed genetics to re-enter the US.

“We are excited about this collaborative effort between the UK and US breeders,” she said, “and hope it will increase the gene pool for both traditional and rare breeds of sheep of British origin here in the US.”

Breeders of Wensleydale, Teeswater, Shropshire and Black Welsh Mountain sheep are among those beginning to explore opportunities.

Black Welsh Mountain breeder and Livestock Conservancy member Oogie McGuire commented: “We need genetic diversity. North American Black Welsh Mountain sheep are all inbred. The average inbreeding of the population is over 16 per cent.”

Some of Oogie McGuire's Black Welsh Mountain sheep

Ms McGuire is actively sourcing a suitable ram. “I’ll be contacting UK breeders shortly to see what they have,” she said. “I’d prefer an older proven stock ram that has been used extensively and successfully. I’d really need to see some offspring to confirm suitability.”

UK-based international ovine genetics companies, meanwhile, are looking forward to working with American breeders and importers. AB Europe and Ian McDougall, MRCVS are already active in the marketplace.

Strict adherence to stringent health protocols will be required for the collection of genetic material from UK rams. Rams must either be scrapie-resistant genotype ARR/ARR or come from scrapie-compliant flocks. The mandatory 60-day quarantine time pre-collection means that rams can be tested in isolation for cattle tuberculosis. Further tests for brucellosis, the Schmallenberg virus and Bluetongue occur in the collection centres.

With import of UK ovine semen now currently permitted, the addition of embryos will be seen as a game changer for many US sheep breeders.

“With a founding population of just 11 animals going forward,” said Oogie McGuire, “the ability to add new genetics via embryo transfer would be an immense benefit to Black Welsh Mountain sheep in North America.”

John Wilkes

John Wilkes
Freelance journalist

John Wilkes is a former UK Sheep producer now living in Washington DC. His experience in both the UK and USA gives him a unique perspective on livestock and food production.

Nowadays he writes and consults about livestock and agriculture. He also hosts a broadcast radio program called The Whole Shebang on Heritage Radio Network from Brooklyn, New York.

John is a board member of The Livestock Conservancy in the U.S. and a member of The American Sheep Industry Association.