Inbreeding is of huge concern among hill sheep ram breeders. Recording ancestry information (the sire and dam) of each generation is a great way to guard against inbreeding. Ram breeders that go to this effort can provide reassurance to their customers that inbreeding is being monitored and avoided using this ancestry information.

Capturing ancestry information in a formal flockbook is the best way for hill ram breeders to invest in the future of their breed. There have been huge gains made over the last decade in lowland flocks. However, in Ireland there have been no hill sheep flockbooks in operation for many years, but this situation is beginning to change.

The Donegal Cheviots are one example of a hill ram breeding group that has embraced the technologies which are now available through Sheep Ireland to easily capture and store the ancestry information required for a formal flockbook.

Building this ancestry information is facilitating the publication of ram sale catalogues, the issuing of pedigree certificates for breeding animals and the generation of genetic evaluations (€uroStars) for Donegal Cheviot sheep.

Assessing levels of inbreeding

In the absence of maintaining flockbooks, hill breeds will always be at risk of running into inbreeding problems. Genomics now presents an option for all hill ram groups/breeders to quickly assess the level of inbreeding in their sheep population.

By DNA sampling and genotyping a hill sheep via Sheep Ireland, a ram breeder will receive a ‘Genomic Inbreeding’ result for that animal. This will immediately highlight if inbreeding is an issue with that animal.

As the number of genotyped sheep within a particular hill group grows, a picture of inbreeding across the breed/group quickly presents itself. Using the Donegal Cheviot as an example, we can see that the average level of inbreeding is low and does not warrant any significant action by the group.

However, when we look at inbreeding at an individual level, we quickly identify some animals that have higher inbreeding variables than we would like. These animals were bred with closely related sheep unknowingly by their owners, which reflects what happens in all hill ram breeding groups across Ireland.

Going forward, the Donegal Cheviot group can avoid this unconscious inbreeding. The group is now quickly building generations of ancestry information within their flockbook. This ancestry information is being validated and backed-up by genotyping, which ensures that the parentage information is 100% accurate while also providing invaluable information on inbreeding levels.

Starting a flockbook

This is a new era for hill sheep breeding, one supported and validated by science to complement the great work being done by hill ram groups all over Ireland. Any groups looking to engage in ancestry recording and/or genotyping can contact Sheep Ireland on 023 88 20 451 or email