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  • How to Breed Eco-Friendly Sheep

How to Breed Eco-Friendly Sheep

Oct 13 2019 Read 1448 Times

While carbon dioxide is perhaps the most notorious contributor to global warming, methane can be just as damaging a greenhouse gas. In fact, even though methane does not persist in the atmosphere as long as CO2, it can be 84 times more effective at trapping heat in the early years of its life than its more infamous counterpart, meaning that tackling methane emissions is a key challenge in curbing the most damaging effects of manmade climate change.

There are a wide variety of different sources which contribute to methane in our atmosphere, with livestock and agriculture chief among them. As a result, concerned environmentalists have been advocating a meat-free diet for years, though the prevalence of beef, mutton and pork in our lifestyles makes this one step too far for many people. However, scientists are working on a way for us to have our lamb and eat it through breeding eco-friendly sheep as an effective compromise for both camps.

Grass to Gas

Sheep impact the environment directly in two ways: the resources they consume and the emissions they expel. The Grass to Gas initiative, spearheaded by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), is hoping to minimise both by identifying specific breeds of sheep with higher feed efficiencies and lower methane emissions.

The project will take the form of a two-phase operation over three years. In the first stage, the researchers will analyse various different methods of determining feed intake and methane emissions - perhaps including the use of gas chromatography for atmospheric methane concentration measurements - to find which one is most suited to the task at hand.

Having identified the most promising technologies, they will then use these methods to differentiate between the footprints of different breeds of sheep and between those farmed indoors and those on pastureland. In this method, they aim to arrive at a definitive conclusion over how to make sheep rearing as eco-friendly a process as possible.

Adding to the body of knowledge

Optimising livestock feed is a relatively new idea among the environmental-agricultural community, but there have been certain studies conducted into the practice in the past. For example, last year, a research experiment from South East Asia was able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%, just by tweaking the feeding regimes of the sheep involved.

It’s hope that this project can add to that body of knowledge and equip the cattle farmers of tomorrow with the knowhow to get the most out of their animals while inflicting the least impact on our environment. Though it’s being led by SRUC, the study is an international affair and has received funding of £250,000 from sources as diverse as New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries and the Research Council of Norway.

“The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue requiring a transnational and transdisciplinary approach,” explained Nicola Lambe, an ovine geneticist at SRUC. “[This project] will contribute towards addressing the argument about the effect of eating meat on global warming, with sheep making use of land often unsuitable for other agricultural production, except conifers – at least in the UK.”

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