Participation in Sheep Ireland’s LambPlus programme has increased by 8% for 2024, with in excess of 1,450 pedigree flocks now performance-recording. The growth in participation is demonstrated in Figure 1 and follows the large increase in 2023, where over 350 new pedigree flocks joined the programme.

Reports from sheep breed societies attribute a high percentage of this growth to the inclusion of the genotyped ram action in the Sheep Improvement Scheme (SIS). Under the SIS, lowland participants are required to purchase a ram rated four- or five-star on the replacement or terminal index, and have a genomic evaluation with Sheep Ireland at the time of purchase. These rams must also be classified as Type 1, 2 or 3 for Scrapie.

Hill sheep flocks have two options for purchasing a ram. They can take the option outlined above for lowland flocks, or purchase a hill breed ram. If selecting the latter option, then the ram needs to be DNA sire-verified by Sheep Ireland and be a Type 1, 2 or 3 for Scrapie at the time of purchase.

Scheme-eligible rams of lowland breed must be recorded through LambPlus to obtain genetic evaluations. With an excess of 19,000 farmers joining the SIS and required to purchase at least one eligible ram, more breeders of pedigree sheep have joined LambPlus to capitalise on demand for such rams.

Sheep Ireland’s Kevin Mulhall also attributes growth in participation to breeders seeing the benefits of performance-recording. He comments that the increased volume of performance records collected will lead to more reliable and robust genetic evaluations and drive further improvements in sheep genetics in the national flock.

Growth in breeders

Figure 2 details the breakdown in LambPlus participation by breed. Texel sheep account for almost a quarter of all LambPlus breeders, with farmer participation steady on 2023 levels. The Suffolk breed has overtaken the Charollais breed as the second-highest breeder participation. Approximately 35 new Suffolk breeders joined LambPlus, bringing total numbers to approximately 210.

The Charollais breed is just behind the Suffolk breed, with over 15 new breeders in 2024 also, bringing total participation to in excess of 200 breeders.

The Galway Sheep breed now accounts for 6.3% of LambPlus breeders, with over 20 new flocks joining LambPlus in 2024 and now positioned at over 90 flocks. The breed has benefited from the inclusion of the breed securing Tier 1 access to the Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES).

There has been no significant change in the Belclare and Beltex breeds, while the black-fleeced breeds, including Blue Texel, Dutch Spotted and Zwartble, recorded 10% to 20% growth in 2024, with between four and eight new flocks joining LambPlus and bringing participation to over 40 breeders. The EasyCare breed has also witnessed growth from a low base, with over 10 flocks joining LambPlus for 2024.

Hill breeds

The number of hill sheep breeds reduced by over 20 flocks. This was due to flocks joining the LambPlus programme in advance of the SIS, but not undertaking performance-recording. The LambPlus statistics do not include between 500 and 600 hill sheep flocks proactively working with Sheep Ireland.

There are over 5,000 hill rams now genotyped, with another 1,000 or so females also genotyped. David Coen, Sheep Ireland, explains that this strong performance in just over one year is putting the hill sheep sector in a good position to create a genetic baseline from which the sector can build progress.

Discussions are taking place regarding the possibility of developing breed indexes for hill sheep. This would allow traits of greatest importance to be incorporated, with many traits in existing genetic evaluations aligned to lowland breeding targets rather than hill sheep breeding targets.

David is delivering a presentation titled ‘Irish Hill Sheep Breeding – a New Era Beckons’, at this week’s Teagasc Hill Sheep Conference, which takes place in the Glendalough Hotel, Brockagh, Glendalough, Co Wicklow, A98 X9C1, on Thursday, 15 February, starting at 7pm.

County figures

Figure 3 details a breakdown of LambPlus participation by county. As expected, the greatest number of breeders is in Donegal, coinciding with the greatest number of sheep. This is followed by Galway and Mayo, with breeder participation in general reflecting the number of sheep in the two counties.

The exception to this is Wexford, where there is a strong proliferation of early lambing flocks and pedigree breeders.