Science - June 16, 2005

Sheep of the future will have no wool

Dutch sheep farmers are looking for a new mutton sheep that does not need shearing. The sheep they have in mind already has a name – Nolana, Latin for ‘no wool’ – but it is not quite there yet. Nevertheless the Nolana Network Netherlands, with assistance from the Animal Sciences Group and A&F, is providing an opportunity to meet the ‘sheep of the future’ this Saturday.

‘It sounds a bit strange, but to get to the sheep of the future we have to go back to the original sheep. Sheep originally lost their hair each spring and autumn, but the popular breeds now kept by sheep farmers have lost this characteristic,’ explains Dolf Smits, a researcher at A&F. He is one of the researchers who have become involved in the Nolana Network Nederland, as it receives support from Wageningen UR through the ministry of agriculture programme Netwerken in de Veehouderij (Networks in Livestock Husbandry).

‘Shearing sheep costs more than the income earned from the wool. That’s why sheep farmers have been looking for sheep that do not need shearing for a while now,’ says Smits. But it’s not only cost savings they are after. Sheep that do not moult also have far more problems with parasites. Texel sheep have to be disinfected a couple of times a year to prevent them getting myasis (fly bite), a fly larva that buries itself into the flesh. Disinfecting sheep is very stressful for the sheep. Smits: ‘We are looking for robust sheep that lose their winter coat in the spring. The hair is blown away by the wind, a lot cheaper than shearing.’

‘Modern’ sheep have been bred precisely for keeping their coat. This was more work, but has led to the development of high quality wool. However, with rising labour costs and decreasing demand for wool, shearing has now become expensive and sheep breeders have started experimenting themselves with sheep that lose their hair.

Smits: ‘Originally we came into the project to help market the Nolana concept. But there are also still breeding problems, so the Animal Sciences Group has also been brought in. The sheep needs to develop a coat that is more like that of a goat, while at the same time we have to watch out that we do not lose the typical characteristics of mutton.’

On Saturday afternoon (18 June) there will be an open day on Nolana sheep organised by a sheep farmer in Dalfsen, near Zwolle, when the results of breeding so far will be presented.
See http://home.hetnet.nl/~dutchfarm. / GvM

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