Tackling Climate Change: UK’s Quest to Breed Climate-Friendly Sheep

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The United Kingdom is home to 33 million sheep. The government has provided almost three million pounds to track and research how their methane emissions are contributing to climate change.

Amid the ongoing discussions at the UN Climate Summit in Dubai, a unique study focused on sheep in southern England is drawing attention as a potential solution to reduce global methane emissions.

The Sheep Methane Problem

Researchers are assessing the methane production of sheep, who are known to be prolific belchers, contributing significantly to the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to Emma Dodds of Innovis, a livestock company focusing on sheep breeding, understanding and reducing sheep methane is crucial for improving flock efficiency and reducing environmental impact.

The Portable Accumulation Chamber Initiative

British researchers are using Portable Accumulation Chambers to measure individual sheep’s methane production. Each chamber, fitting one sheep, is designed to quantify the methane emitted during a one-hour isolation period. This initiative aims to identify the gassiest and most climate-friendly sheep among the country’s 33 million.

Scientists estimate that, through selective breeding, methane emissions in sheep can be reduced by one to two per cent every year. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

Sheep’s Contribution to Methane Emissions

Sheep, like cows, are ruminants and produce more methane than other animals like pigs. Their regurgitation during digestion contributes significantly to methane emissions. Nicola Lambe, a sheep geneticist from Scotland Central College, estimates that breeding for lower emissions could reduce the industry’s impact by one to two percent per year over 20 years.

The Potential Impact

Scotland’s government suggests that breeding greener sheep could reduce emissions by about 30 percent, or a third of a tonne of methane annually. However, achieving low-methane emissions may require balancing with other factors like health, growth, and meat production.

Emma Dodds, left, with the sheep-breeding firm Innovis, and farmer Tim White, separate sheep prior to their entry into the testing chambers. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Farmer Perspectives

Farmers like Tim White see the study’s metrics as a way to breed out the biggest methane producers and enhance other genetic traits. He suggests that faster growth rates could lead to less methane emission due to shorter lifespans.

The Global Context

While cattle produce more methane per animal, sheep offer an advantage in monitoring emissions. The data from sheep can be gathered and translated into breeding programs much faster, a contrast to the more extended data collection process for cattle.

International Efforts

New Zealand, known for its high sheep-to-human ratio, is at the forefront of this research, having developed the methane measuring technology. The country plans to introduce a carbon tax on farm animal emissions, a move that has stirred controversy among farmers.

Technician Liz Tree checks the monitors tracking the methane emissions. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Canada’s and UK’s Role

Similar genetic experiments are underway in Canada, though still in early stages. In the UK, the methane monitoring program, funded by a £2.9 million government grant, is seen as a precursor to a possible tax scheme.

COP26 Commitments

Over 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 at COP26, but details on achieving this target remain scarce. Methane, a more potent heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide, presents a significant challenge in global climate efforts.

Broader Implications

Emily Gascoigne, a sheep veterinarian, believes that lower emissions could result in healthier sheep, more profitable farms, and potentially better, cheaper food. This aligns with the broader goal of environmental efficiency, where thriving agriculture coexists with reduced environmental impact.