The new Sheep Improvement Scheme, which replaces the existing Sheep Welfare Scheme from 1 February 2023, opened for applications this week and will remain open until midnight on Monday 19 December. Applications for the scheme must be made online via the Department’s facility. This can be completed by a farmer or approved Farm Advisory System (FAS) adviser.

The five-year scheme has a budget of €20m and the payment rate has increased from €10 to €12 per breeding ewe. There are a number of other significant changes, including the reference number, which determines the level of payment being selected from a five year period.

There are also two new actions – a mandatory action requiring farmers to purchase genotyped rams with a given scrapie status and an optional action to carry out a faecal egg count reduction test. There are some question marks around both these areas and these are discussed in detail in this article.

New reference number

A new reference number will be selected, which should align the payment rates closer to actual flock numbers for most farmers. The reference number will be based on the average of the three highest census return values for eligible breeding ewes (ewes aged over 12 months of age) in the years 2016 to 2021.

The terms and conditions outline that where only two census returns have been made by the applicant over this period of time, then the scheme payment reference number will be based on the average of the two years’ census returns and likewise where only one census return was made during this period, the scheme reference number will be based on that return.

A significant change is a requirement for farmers to purchase a four or five star genotyped ram. This will create challenges for the hill sheep sector. \Glenalla Photography.

In the case of new entrants to sheep farming, where no census details are available to the Department, the payment reference will be allocated following a review of the submitted application.

The terms and conditions state this review will consider the number of animals held by the applicant at the time of application and/or the number of animals declared on the sheep census return for the year prior to the scheme year for which the application is being made.

Maximum payment

This reference number will dictate the maximum number of breeding ewes eligible for payment for the duration of the scheme, with the terms and conditions outlining that the scheme payment reference will not increase for the duration of the scheme.

An exception to this is where an increased stocking rate is required in commonage for participants in the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

In such cases, the increased number of breeding ewes returned on the annual sheep census return will become the scheme payment reference until the defined minimum stocking rate is reached or the deadline for reaching same has passed.

Steady flock numbers

The reference number must be maintained on an ongoing basis with the given number of ewes available, if required for inspection to receive the maximum payment for the scheme year in question.

The terms and conditions outline that where the number of breeding ewes returned on the 2023 or later sheep census (or inspection/administrative control report) is lower than the scheme payment reference number, then this new lower number will become the scheme payment reference number.

For example, if a farmer has a reference number of 100 ewes, but records 80 ewes on their 2023 sheep census return, this will form the basis of payment for the following year and must be maintained throughout 2024.

The popular option of scanning ewes and feeding accordingly is included as an option in the Sheep Improvement Scheme. \ David Ruffles

Applicants can increase numbers in a subsequent year with the scheme payment reference number capable of reverting upwards to the original reference number set.

As is currently the case in the Sheep Welfare Scheme, applicants are required to inform the Department before payment issues or prior to receipt of a notification of an administrative inspection if the number of breeding ewes they hold falls below the scheme payment reference number/most recent census return.

This lower number will become the new payment reference number. Failure to inform the Department of the lower number may result in an administrative penalty being applied. The penalty outlined in the terms and conditions is a pro rata penalty – if the shortfall in numbers was 20 ewes, the penalty would be payment on 40 ewes.

Ewe lambs

Ewe lambs can be used to satisfy a shortfall in breeding ewe numbers, but farmers will be disappointed to hear that rules on this front have not changed, with ewe lambs only capable of filling any shortfall once they turn 12 months of age.

Farmers had hoped that ewe lambs would be deemed eligible on 1 January subsequent to the year they were born, so that barren ewes identified at scanning could be culled and replaced by ewe lambs.

Actions and options available

The list of actions available to hill and lowland flocks is summarised in Table 1. Before delving in to these actions, it is worth noting that applicants with greater than 50% lowland ewes in their 2021 census return must choose from the options for lowland flocks and the same goes for hill flocks.

If applicants deem they are incorrectly designated as lowland or hill, the Department advises to make contact promptly.

The most significant change regards the purchase of genotyped rams. The terms and conditions state all applicants must purchase four and five star genotyped ram(s).

The Irish Farmers Journal understands that the terms and conditions will be updated and that lowland farmers will be required to purchase a four- or five-star genotyped ram categorised as Type 1, 2 or 3 for scrapie. It is believed hill flocks will be required to purchase a ram which is DNA sire verified by Sheep Ireland and Type 1, 2 or 3 for scrapie.

Mineral supplementation of ewes must cover the period of at least 60 days post mating. \ David Ruffles

Applicants with a scheme reference number of less than 150 breeding ewes must purchase a genotyped ram once within the first three years of the scheme. The year in which a ram will be purchased must be selected when joining the scheme.

Applicants with greater than 150 breeding ewes will have to carry out the genotyped ram action twice, with one ram purchased within the first three years and a second purchased any year after the first year selected for purchasing ram number one.

Applicants must denote the actions they are selecting in the first year of application with one action selected from the list of Category A actions and one from the list of Category B actions, excluding the genotyped ram action, which is mandatory.

The Category B action does not have to be completed in the year(s) in which the genotyped ram action takes place.

Faecal egg count reduction test

The other notable change from the Sheep Welfare Scheme is in regard to the parasite control option.

The requirement in the Sheep Welfare Scheme was to carry out a faecal egg count or counts, whereas in the Sheep Improvement Scheme, it states that applicants must carry out a faecal egg count reduction test.

However, there are conflicting statements in the terms and conditions as the criteria it has laid out relates to carrying out a faecal egg count test to determine the need to dose rather than carrying out a reduction test to check if a product is working.

The Irish Farmers Journal has sought clarity from the Department on this matter.

Existing actions summary

The remaining actions detailed in Table 1 all featured in the Sheep Welfare Scheme. Here is a brief summary.

  • Scanning and recording of results: This was one of the most commonly selected actions in the Sheep Welfare Scheme. Applicants must carry out ultrasound pregnancy scanning of ewes 70 to 100 days post-ram turnout and use this information to manage and feed according to litter size. The feeding programme must be recorded in the scheme action book.
  • Mineral supplementation of ewes post-mating: Along with scanning, these were the two most common options in the Sheep Welfare Scheme. Mineral supplementation must be provided to cover at least 60 days post-mating, with the start date defined as the date ewes are joined to a ram. Supplementation may take the form of bagged mineral feeding stuffs (dry minerals), mineral blocks, drenches and liquid minerals, injectable products or boluses.
  • Lameness control: An option for lowland flocks, this requires participants to carry out a minimum of five lameness examinations per scheme year. Appropriate treatment of identified incidences must take place, with the cause also identified to allow preventative practices to be put in place.
  • Meal feeding lambs post-weaning: This requires that hill lambs receive concentrate supplementation or straight feeds containing appropriate minerals and vitamins for four weeks post-weaning. Recommended feeding rates will be detailed in the scheme action book. In the Sheep Welfare Scheme, the recommended rate was 75g/head/day for week one, rising to 125g in week two, 175g in week three and 250g in week four.
  • Mineral supplementation lambs pre-weaning: Under this action, hill flock participants must supplement lambs at least once with a mineral feeding stuff during the grazing season pre-weaning, which will assist in addressing mineral deficiencies in lambs on hill flocks. Supplementation may take the form of injectables, boluses, drenches or liquid minerals.