By Debbie James

Damara genetics have been introduced into two Welsh sheep flocks to create a new income stream from these goat-like sheep.

Six purebred Damara lambs and 70 crossbred lambs have been produced from embryo implantation and artificial insemination.

Breeders Peter Williams and Bedwyr Jones now plan to grow numbers to supply meat from these ‘fat tail’ lambs to niche markets as there is a big demand for this type of meat in the UK.

The breeding programme is the result of a desire to secure the future of their flocks post-Brexit – their research with retailers, restaurateurs and abattoirs has convinced them that this specialty lean and distinctive-tasting meat could appeal to a niche market in the some of the UK’s biggest multi-cultural cities.

Damaras as known for their large, fatty tails and hindquarters and cross very easily. By storing energy in their hindquarters, they can thrive in marginal conditions but have yet to be put to the test in a region with a high rainfall level.

Mr Williams, who runs a flock of 300 Welsh x Texel ewes on 150 acres on Anglesey, first came across the Damara breed when he managed a large-scale sheep farm in Saudi Arabia; it was crossed with intensively-farmed Romney ewes.

Wales has, of course, a much wetter and colder climate but the farm in New South Wales which supplied the embryos reports that the Damaras are happy in winter snow.

The embryos and semen were sourced from Australia because the UK has an import agreement with this country.

But despite that agreement, the men say there was a daunting amount of red tape to overcome and approval was needed from several authorities in different countries.

The frozen embryos were conceived in New South Wales before being frozen, transported and then defrosted for transplant.

Fifteen embryos were implanted into 15 Texel-cross and Romney-cross ewes and these produced three female and three male lambs.

Mr Williams admits he was disappointed with the success rate from the embryo implantation; this, he says, was a result of some of the embryos being of poor quality.

“Where good-quality frozen and thawed embryos were implanted commercially acceptable pregnancy rates were achieved,’’ he says.

Artificial insemination had been more successful with a 75 per cent conception rate.

The crossbred lambs were produced by 50 Texel-cross, Romney-cross and Lleyn-cross ewes.

“The lambs were lively at birth, keen to suckle and on their feet very quickly,’’ says Mr Williams.

“At eight weeks they are thriving and coping well with the very varied summer conditions so far.’’

Some of the crossbreds have obvious Damara features with long legs and more fat around the tailhead.

The fleece colours and length vary, several have thick curly brown and white coats.

Mr Williams said the results from the AI had proven that the use of Damara semen had resulted in commercially acceptable pregnancy rates.

Most of the lambs will be retained for a breeding programme to build up numbers.

“As the flock is thriving well so far, we’re optimistic that we can now increase numbers steadily, see how they progress and then start to set up our supply outlets, both directly and through wholesale buyers,’’ says Mr Williams.

The lambs are now being monitored to see how they perform in the Welsh climate – ease of lambing, weight gains and health are being examined and compared to a control group of Texel-cross lambs.

This will be crucial as the Damara is an African breed which is more common in hot and drier climates including Australia and Saudi Arabia – the name of the breed is derived from the Damara area of Namibia.

One of the Damara’s chief advantages is its non-selective feeding habits.

The breed is very hardy and can metabolise lower quality feed into meat and muscle.

Mr Williams says that getting purebred fat tail ewes on the ground in Wales will be important for the long-term success of the project.

Over the next two years the men will grow numbers by using additional imported frozen embryos and semen.