Most of the farms in the Northern Ireland Sheep Programme operate mid- to late-season lambing flocks and pregnancy scanning is currently being carried out to determine expected lamb numbers.

Hopefully, the mild, settled autumn and an abundance of grass has resulted in a successful breeding season and scanning percentages are in line with flock targets.

All scanning results will be presented on these pages in the coming weeks, once the task has completed on all the programme farms.

This week features an update on scanning and pre-lambing management from Paraic McNeill, who runs a lowland flock with his father Seamus at Annaclone, Co Down.

In addition, a second update provides an overview of the scanning results from the lowland and upland flocks at CAFRE’s beef and sheep units in Co Antrim.

Paraic McNeill – Annaclone, Co Down

Ewes were scanned in two groups on Paraic’s farm as lambing is split to make best use of housing space, as well as labour.

The first lambing group was scanned on 16 December with the second group scanned on 17 January. Rams were turned out to the ewes on 16 September with lambing set to kick off in mid-February.

Ewes from the first group that were empty were re-scanned with the second group just in case they had been served late.

Across 121 mature ewes and 59 hoggets, scanning averaged 159%. A further 31 ewe lambs averaged 104%. Paraic was disappointed by the overall scanning results, which are summarised in Table 1.

Empty rate was 5%, which is higher than the usual 1% to 2% recorded in recent years. The number of triplets is also lower year on year, but Paraic maintains this is not a bad thing as there will be less cross-fostering or artificial rearing required.

The number of twins is relatively static, with more ewes carrying singles. With empty ewes in great condition, they were sold through the live ring last Thursday.

Scanning groups

The mature ewes scanned in the first group averaged 164%, with 69 sets of twins, five sets of triplets, 41 singles and six empty ewes. The second group had 59 hoggets and 31 ewe lambs. The hoggets averaged 157% with 33 sets of twins, one set of triplets, 22 singles and three empty animals. The ewe lambs at 104% had five sets of twins and 26 singles.

Flock records

According to Paraic, the mature ewes were in ideal condition during mating and on a great run of grass. Yet these animals account for two-thirds of all singles and empty ewes.

Based on analysis of flock records, he says a number of ewes that scanned with a single lamb, have had fertility issues in recent years and will be marked for culling from the flock.


All ewes carrying twins and triplets in the first lambing group were housed in mid-January, with single-bearing ewes housed last weekend (22 January). The second group will be housed in phases as the animals in the first group are turned back out to grass.

All rams were fitted with raddles at breeding time. Crayons were changed every seven days and this means Paraic has a good handle on housing ewes according to predicted lambing dates.

Meal feeding

Silage quality is excellent, with a D-Value of 72% (77% DMD). As ewes were housed in good body condition, concentrate requirements can be scaled back.Concentrates were introduced to ewes with twins at housing.

A flat rate of 0.25kg/day per head was offered, but as of this week, it has stepped up to a daily rate of 0.5kg/head.

Triplets will be split out this week, with feed rates increased to 1kg/day. Singles have just started on concentrates and eating 0.25kg/day.

In the second lambing group, twin-bearing ewes will start off on 0.25kg/day from this weekend.

Single-bearing ewes will remain on silage then offered 0.25kg/day for the final fortnight prior to lambing.

Routine health

All ewes were vaccinated with Heptavac P around four weeks before lambing. Twin- and triplet-bearing ewes got a mineral bolus whereas singles got an oral mineral drench as a trial.

Ewes are also due to get a fluke drench this weekend with the last treatment given in late November.

195% scanning rate for CAFRE’s lowland flock

CAFRE’s lowland sheep flock is made up of 162 mature ewes and 50 replacement hoggets which are transferred from the college’s hill unit.

Replacements entering the lowland unit are normally Lleyn-sired cross progeny from a Texel-cross Swaledale/Blackface ewe.

All breeding females at the lowland unit are crossed to Meatlinc rams. Meatlinc is a composite breed developed in the UK using Suffolk, Dorset, Île de France, Charollais and Berrichon du Cher genetics.


Five rams were turned out to 212 ewes and hoggets on 22 October and removed on 25 November, meaning all ewes were given two cycles to hold to service.

One month prior to the rams going out to breed, they were semen tested. Three rams were rated as being fertile, with one sire having poor semen quality and one being infertile at that point.

The two rams with semen issues were retested one week later. Semen quality had significantly improved after both sires had been stimulated by a small group of ewes and deemed fit to breed.


Two teaser rams were introduced to the ewes a fortnight prior to the start of breeding. One week prior to breeding, all ewes and rams were treated for fluke.

Hoggets were also vaccinated with Toxovac and Enzovac around mid-September and all rams received a four-in-one mineral bolus.

Scanning results

All breeding females were scanned on 5 January and across the 212 animals mated, the scanning percentage was 195% after a four-week breeding season, indicating that rams were indeed fertile.

This year’s scanning is an increase from the 186% recorded last January. From this figure, there were 164% live lambs at grass by summer.

A breakdown of this year’s scanning result is outlined in Table 2.

There were 125 ewes scanned with twins, nine with singles, 40 sets of triplets and two sets of quads. Overall, 59% of the flock is carrying twins.

After the breeding season, ewes were handled twice to treat for scab. Handling sheep immediately after the breeding season can pose an increased risk of embryonic losses from stressing animals.

However, with the physical empty rate for the flock around 4%, this figure does not really point to additional handling having been an issue.

Breeding records for the CAFRE flock would also indicate that the overwhelming majority of ewes held to the first service, giving an extremely tight lambing period in March.

Pre-lambing management

Since scanning at the outset of the month, ewes have remained on a grazing diet. The plan is to split ewes for housing in February and introduce supplementary feeding in the runup to lambing.

CAFRE’s upland ewe flock

The upland flock runs at the CAFRE hill farm centre, Glenwherry, and normally carries around 600 crossbred ewes.

These run alongside 500 Blackface ewes that graze the harder section of the hill and a spring-calving suckler herd with approximately 100 cows.

The upland ewes are all crossbred animals and are bred from a nucleus flock of Blackface ewes crossed to a mix of sire breeds.

Pregnancy scanning was carried out in the second week of January for the upland ewes. The pure hill ewes are April-lambing and will be scanned in February.

Breeding management

Within the upland flock, there are two main breed types, with a Texel-cross Swale/Blackface ewe and a Swale-cross Blackface ewe. These animals are mated to a combination of Texel, Lleyn and Meatlinc rams.

There were 394 Texel-cross ewes turned out for breeding and all mated to Meatlinc rams from 25 October.

Ewes were split in two batches with three rams per group. A batch of 128 hogget replacements ran with Lleyn rams.

For the Swale-cross Blackface ewes, there were 156 breeding females put to the ram on 4 November. Again, these animals were split in two batches, with two Texel rams covering ewes.

All rams ran with the ewes for two cycles and to safeguard against infertility, flock sires were rotated after the first cycle.

Ewes where housed on 3 January and fed a silage-only diet. Concentrate will be introduced in early February around six weeks before lambing begins.

Singles will be supplemented at a daily rate of 0.2kg/head, twins at 0.5kg/head and triplets at 0.75kg/head.

Scanning results

Scanning results were extremely positive for the whole flock, especially given the level of hill genetics present.

For the 394 Texel-cross ewes, scanning was 182%, with 67% of ewes carrying twins. A breakdown of the scanning data is presented in Table 3.

There were 267 sets of twins, 34 sets of triplets and 84 singles, with nine ewes scanning empty.

For the hoggets, scanning results were 209%, with 74% of animals carrying twins. This breaks down to 95 sets of twins, 23 sets of triplets, nine singles and one hogget scanning empty.

Scanning results for the 156 Swale-cross Blackface ewes was 170%, with 62% of females carrying twins. This breaks down to 98 sets of twins, 10 sets of triplets, 40 singles and eight ewes scanning empty.


The outlined scanning results have not happened by chance. The flock makes use of performance data at every opportunity.

All maternal and terminal traits are measured from birth through to selling lambs. Flock sires are chosen on performance figures to drive genetic gain.

Health planning has also been integral in driving fertility, with the whole flock annually scanned for Ovine Pulmonary Adenocarcinoma (OPA) which is an infectious, highly transmissible virus within sheep.

Identifying positively affected and suspect animals early has led to a rigorous culling policy in recent years. The end result has been a marked increase in flock fertility and ewe output.

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