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Roundworm-resistant sheep coming to P.E.I. from the U.K., New Zealand | CBC News


Local sheep breeders hope to make Prince Edward Island herds more resilient to parasites by introducing new breeds from the U.K. and New Zealand.

Sheep are prone to parasitic infections caused by gastrointestinal nematodes, or roundworms. Almost all pastured sheep have them in their stomach. 

The nematodes can cause the animals to become ill and die, explained Andrew Peregrine, an expert in clinical parasitology with the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. 

“There’s one parasite called haemonchus that’s a blood feeder that can cause significant sickness and death in sheep,” Peregrine said. “We see that from the West Coast to the East Coast in Canada, particularly when you have hot, humid summers.”

He said Ontario saw its first death linked to haemonchus last week, and experts believe this year will be “a lot worse” than usual there and in P.E.I. given how hot and humid summer has been.

We don’t want to use drugs to control the worms if we don’t have to​​​​– Margaret McCallum, Rustaret Farm co-owner

The P.E.I. government’s Climate Challenge Fund is giving the P.E.I. Sheep Breeders’ Association $99,990 to bring in 525 semen samples from six to nine parasite-resilient breeds in the U.K. and New Zealand.

The plan was chosen as a climate change mitigation project because grazing sheep flocks reduces greenhouse gas emissions and supports carbon sequestering.

A woman holds a young white lamb. Two large dogs walk in the background of a green field.
Margaret McCallum, co-owner and operator of Rustaret Farms, holds a young Wiltshire horn lamb. The breed is known to be naturally parasite-resistant. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

The funding covers both the semen samples and the cost of artificial insemination. Successful methods to artificially inseminate ewes are expensive and require invasive surgical procedures, the breeders’ association says.

About half the semen samples, 280, will be inseminated this fall. The rest will be used in 2024. 

Heritage breeds 

Margaret McCallum and Rusty Bittermann co-own and operate Rustaret Farm, a 120-hectare property in Shamrock where they raise sheep and cattle.

Their livestock are heritage breeds which are rare on P.E.I. Among them are Wiltshire horn sheep, a type of hair sheep and one of the breeds the association will be introducing to the Island’s stock. 

McCallum got the Wiltshires because they don’t need to be shorn. 

“Because we’re raising our sheep on pasture, they’re more vulnerable to parasites than they would be if they were in the barn,” said McCallum. “Because we’re trying to do regenerative agriculture, because we’re trying to use organic practices, we don’t want to use drugs to control the worms if we don’t have to.”

The worms that infect pasture sheep are especially resistant to drugs. That’s why McCallum and her husband focus on raising sheep with good genes, like Wiltshires, and give them good feed like forage chicory.

An adult sheep with horns can be seen losing the fur, or hair, on its back above its forlegs.
Wiltshire horn sheep are a breed of hair sheep. Hair sheep got their name because they do not need to be shorn. The hair is shed, as can be seen here. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

“In the last decade people have realized what a crisis it is,” said McCallum. “We’ve got a problem that’s really difficult to solve without looking at some of the more traditional methods of using resistant sheep and forages and feed.”

No gene tweaking

None of the breeds being brought to P.E.I. have been genetically modified.

Peregrine said there are examples of sheep that are more resistant to these parasites all over the world — and they exist without human intervention.

“In Kenya, there’s a breed called the red Maasai. In the Caribbean, there’s a Barbados black belly. Now that’s essentially nature’s answer because everybody who wasn’t resistant died,” he said.

“We’re not making any genetic modifications here. You’re just finding out what are the genetic changes that nature came up with.”

McCallum said she’s excited to see the project start this fall, and will be contacting the P.E.I. Sheep Breeders’ Association to take part. 

“We are maintaining the purebred Wiltshire horn line and we’re trying to work to get their genetics better,” she said. 

“If we could get purebred rams to produce our hybrid lams that were parasite resistant, it would be wonderful.”


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