A decade after the foot-and-mouth epidemic a farm in Nidderdale has become the site of a major scientific move towards protecting native sheep breeds from devastating crises that could wipe them out.
A Herdwick ewe, born from a frozen embryo stored during the darkest days of foot-and-mouth, has given birth to her own twin lambs, helping to secure the future of the traditional breed.
The second generation lambs are now being reared on biologist Dianna Bowles’ Middlesmoor farm, more than a decade after she was first contacted by sheep farmers desperate to stop the breed being wiped out in the foot-and-mouth cull.
Dr Bowles said the safe arrival of the lambs to a ewe which had sat frozen in the gene bank for 10 years shows there is a way of protecting the smaller native breeds – not commercially valuable enough to have their own established gene banks, nor protected as rare breeds – from being wiped out by future disasters.
“This just goes to show that science is evolving everyday and to think this would happen 12 years after the height of the foot-and-mouth epidemic is astronomical,” Dr Bowles said.
The ewe Maggie was born in Lofthouse after a frozen embryo was implanted in a surrogate Mule ewe in 2011, a decade after she was conceived. Maggie was reared by farmer’s daughter Evie Church, now 15, and returned to her original breeder Margaret Gass in Cumbria, before coming back to Nidderdale to be tupped at Dr Bowles’s farm.
“Maggie’s little ones are beautiful, just like their mother. They haven’t got a name yet, but they’re so precious,” Dr Bowles said.
The lambs are thriving the birth of the second generation is a sign that science can help farming through difficult times, she added.
“We’re finding that science can help agriculture more and more as technologies get better and better, and research can only improve after this.”
With the Herdwick breed heavily concentrated around Coniston, in Cumbria, there were real fears they bred could be completely killed out when foot-and-mouth hit that area, prompting farmers to search for a way to protect the Herdwick breed. Prof Bowles worked with them to set up the Sheep Trust, which came up with the idea to freeze embryos.
“A frozen embryo contains the whole ‘Herdwickness’ – mother and father – it’s a perfect little Herdwick sitting there,” she said.
“Ten years on from the epidemic we went back to the gene bank to ensure all was well, and to remember those difficult times.”
Back up stores of genetic material are vital for the survival of native breeds like Herdwicks which are heavily concentrated in one area. Yorkshire’s own Dalesbred sheep could be under the same threat, and Dalesbred embryos were also frozen during the foot-and-mouth crisis.
Prof Bowles, who has her own flock of Herdwicks, added:
“The foot-and-mouth crisis was horrendous for everyone in the farming industry.
“Now I’m trying to get some top class scientists and farmers into the same room to discuss how technology can improve farming, and vice versa.
“It’s an exciting time for farming and science, and Maggie’s twins are a prime example of just how vital science is to the farming world.”