The Department of Agriculture has confirmed requirements in the Sheep Improvement Scheme (SIS) relating to the new action requiring farmers to purchase genotyped rams.

The final terms and conditions were published on the Department website on Wednesday evening and these include different criteria for hill sheep farmers.

The requirement for lowland farmers has also slightly changed with scrapie status now included, as detailed below.

Requirements for lowland producers

Lowland farmers must purchase a ram which is rated as four or five star on the replacement or terminal index, as per Sheep Ireland genetic evaluations, and the ram must have a genomic evaluation with Sheep Ireland at the time of purchase.

Rams must also be classed as type one, two or three for scrapie and no rams classed as type four or five for scrapie will qualify to meet the ram purchase action.

Requirements for hill flocks

The terms and conditions use the example of the Scottish Blackface and Cheviot breeds to denote what is required for hill flocks.

It states: “If the ram is a Scottish Blackface type sheep or a Cheviot, the ram only needs to be DNA sire-verified by Sheep Ireland and be a type one, two or three for scrapie at the time of purchase.”

Alternatively, hill sheep flocks participating in the SIS may adopt the lowland ram requirement where purchasing a ram for crossbreeding purposes as follows: “Hill flock participants may purchase a four- or five-star ram on the replacement or terminal index and have a genomic evaluation with Sheep Ireland at the time of purchase, and be a type one, two or three for scrapie. No type four or five scrapie genotyped rams will qualify.”

Questions and answers

The questions and answers below with Sheep Ireland shed some more light on the ram action.

Q. What is genotyping?

A. Genotyping is a process where a DNA sample is taken from the animal in the form of a tissue sample taken from the animal’s ear. This sample is sent to a lab for analysis and it delivers information on the genetic makeup of that animal. Some people think that genotyping is simply testing for scrapie, with the genomic service that Sheep Ireland provides, it is much more than just a scrapie test.

Q. What are the benefits of genotyping?

A. There are three main benefits to genotyping.

1) Improved genetic evaluations and improved index accuracies. The replacement index accuracy will be increased by about 15% and the terminal index accuracy by about 17%. This results from knowing the exact DNA makeup of the animal.

2) The second benefit is parentage verification and predictions – when an animal is genotyped and its parents are genotyped, we can confirm that the correct sire and dam are assigned to that animal. If the parentage is incorrect, the correct parents will be identified if they are also genotyped.

3) The Sheep Ireland genotype has Department-approved scrapie status.

Q. For a hill sheep flock selling breeding rams what should I now be considering?

A. Sheep Ireland will be holding a series of regional information meetings in the coming weeks and we will also continue communicating with hill breeding groups regarding groups to discuss how they can take advantage of the scheme. We are keen to facilitate and help groups to establish pedigree flock books and in time performance recording. We believe there is huge potential to make real gains in identifying superior performing genetics, especially on the maternal characteristics.

Q. If I want to sell DNA sire-verified hill rams next year is there anything I need to do immediately or do I wait until lambs are born next spring?

A. For us to provide DNA sire verification, we need to have the DNA of the sire on our database. Genotyping of stock rams is very important as, unfortunately, rams may die, and having a verified DNA sample from your ram on the Sheep Ireland database will ensure that any of his lambs can be sire verified in the future, provided the progeny are genotyped themselves.

Q. How can I get rams genotyped and what is the cost?

A. LambPlus members can order genotypes online via their genomic ordering screens. The cost of genotypes for LambPlus members is subsidised from €24.50 to €15. We will be providing similar support and subsidised genotyping costs to hill sheep groups which sign up to participate with us. We are also looking at options at present to speed up genotyping of stock rams such as hosting a genotyping service for a group in a particular mart on a particular day where breeders can bring rams to be genotyped. Alternatively, interested breeders can contact us on 023-882 0451 or email

Q. Will there be enough genotyped four- and five-star rams and DNA sire-verified rams with the required scrapie status available?

A. Yes. There has been significant growth in the number of performance recording lowland flocks in recent years, and this was before the scheme was ever announced, with even greater number expected to join LambPlus for 2023 and beyond. In 2022, we saw genotyping for the top sales become a norm as breeders see the value in being 100% sure of their parentage. The ability and infrastructure is there, tried and tested and increasing the numbers to meet the scheme requirements will not be an issue.

The hill side is starting from a lower base, hence why they only require sire verification and scrapie (and not stars). The turnaround time from the breeder submitting the tissue samples for their rams to getting parentage results should take no longer than four weeks.

Once hill breeders have selected their hoggets that they plan to sell in 2023, they should start the process of genotyping so they have peace of mind that all is in order well in advance of the sale season.

We have already started working with the 14 different hill groups around the country to help their members get up to speed and a number have already submitted a DNA sample for their stock rams in anticipation of the scheme requirements.

Q. Will this requirement not just push up the price of rams out of reach of many farmers?

A. As mentioned in the last question, we have seen a significant increase in the level of genotyping being carried out by LambPlus flocks in recent years.

The annual Sheep Ireland elite ram sale in 2022 required rams to be genotyped as a condition of sale. Rams sold from €300 to over €1,000 per head, so there was rams to suit all budgets and breeding objectives.

Q. What do I need to do if I am a lowland pedigree breeder not currently performance recording with Sheep Ireland to be in a position to have star-rated rams for sale in 2023?

A. The first thing you need to do if you are not a member of the relevant breed society is to join it. The Sheep Ireland database hosts flock book information for the majority of lowland breeds and once you are a member, we will then have access to your information.

You then need to become a member of Sheep Ireland, which will cost €50 or €100 (depending on the breed) and start recording information, such as lambing difficulty, ewe milk yield, ewe mothering ability, lamb vigour, litter size, lamb birth weights, mortality, etc.

As animals get older, relevant records include 40-day weights and health issues, while other records include scanning information, cull reasons, etc. This can all be done via the Free Sheep Ireland App or on our website.

Each flock will have a data quality index score, which rates the level of information recorded, its timeliness and accuracy. Flocks needs a minimum score of 40% to receive genetic evaluations on their animals.