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Sheep could be bred for climate resilience

21 May 2021

Roslin Institute

Pinpointing genes relating to variations in milk production could help breed animals resilient to warming conditions, a study suggests.

Dairy sheep in the Mediterranean could be bred to retain productivity in a changing climate, research has shown.

Some Chios sheep, whose milk is used to produce feta and other cheeses, are more resilient than others to temperature fluctuations throughout the seasons, a study has shown.

Groups of genes may enable some sheep to remain productive in hot and cold conditions, according to the research involving scientists from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH), Greece, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the Roslin Institute.

Selecting sheep with those genes for breeding could help flocks adapt in the region, which is vulnerable to climate change.

Large-scale study

Scientists created a mathematical model of resilience to fluctuations in climate, based on records of milk productivity, time of lambing and weather throughout the seasons.

Data relating to almost 40,000 ewes was used for the study, collected by the Chios Sheep Breeders’ Cooperative ‘Macedonia’ in Greece.

Some animals responded better than others to temperature fluctuations in hot or cold conditions, with some hardly being affected by changes, analysis found.

Ewes’ resilience to hot or cold temperatures depended on the season in which they had produced lambs, scientists observed. Animals that had lambed in spring generally responded better to hot conditions.

Beneficial genes

Resilience may be linked to groups of genes and inherited traits may enable farmers to use selective breeding to mitigate against climate change, the findings from the first study of its kind indicate.

Researchers used their data modelling to categorise sheep according to their resilience to hot and cold conditions for the three lambing seasons – autumn, winter and spring.

Future studies could focus on specific genes associated with resilience to temperature fluctuations in individual animals.

This insight could inform how to optimise breeding selection for this trait, alongside other desirable characteristics such as reproductive potential.

"Our findings have implications for selectively breeding animals with genes that enable resilience to changing climates and for farm management, such as the time of year when ewes are bred."

-Professor Georgios Banos,
SRUC and the Roslin Institute