Ovella Galega -Autoctonas Magazine Summer 2009

Translatd from Autóctonas Galegas Magazine - Summer 2009

To see referenced graphs please consult link.

Gone are the days when the census of Galician sheep did not amount to 500 head. Today, we have before us an growing breed with a promising future, with its numbers increasing year after year. Increasingly ,stock farmers and knowledgeable people are recognizing their valuable and desirable characteristics Also, they are a legacy left to us by our ancestors we must guarantee for new generations to come.

Over years multiple problems were solved little by little, given that any recovery process is slow. We must make sure that each step achieves a solid base to secure the future of the Galician sheep. Much work remains to be done to achieve this goal for ASOVEGA. But fear not, effort and dedication from all involved will get us safely there.

To assess the conservation program an analysis of the past, present and future of our breed follows, First , there is the maintenance of genetic diversity and positive census development, which should be initiated according to national, European and international recommendations in the management of animal genetic resources, to ensure the maintenance of the breed over time.


Starting Point: 2000/2001

The completion of the survey of the Galician countryside and the implementation of the Breed Book, showed the real state of the Galician sheep:

1. State of the breed:

Reduced number of females

Drastic disappearance of males

Highly elevated average age of the population

Virtually no purebreds

2. Farm characteristics

Located in high mountain areas, quite isolated from urban centers

Average age of farmer, 50. Also found new farmers interested in keeping this breed on their farms.

Minimal number of breeding sheep in each herd

Present state: 2009

Positive census development

Average population age normalized

Availability of rams to meet farm demand

All females purebreds

Breed expanding: great demand from farmers to add the breed to their farms

2. Farm characteristics

Located in mountain areas

Extensive/semi-extensive regimes

Youth incorporated in farms

Conversion of flocks for breed purity

Earlier in the conservation program a halt in the decline of the breed was achieved. But, as reflected in the number of breeding stock graphic, the breed´s problem of advanced age in the overall population (high death rate) and absence of males (few purebred births) resulted in the growth not being visible in the first few years.

In the year 2002 the first examples of the breed were given to farms in the province of Ourense, in 2004 to those of other provinces, consisting of all purebreds. This, coupled with the establishment of a breeding program as of 2001 to ensure the rearing of all females born, change the population trend which begins experiencing exponential growth.
Thanks to this program, initiated in 1999, we have a breed which has grown in population by a factor of 5, experiencing an increase of 413%, which presents an average value of inbreeding in the herd book of 1.94%, far from what is considered dangerous (10%).
One of the initial problems apparent at the beginning was the advanced age of the population, as we can see in the corresponding graphic. Replacement of the purebred rams caused the near extinction of the purebred sheep, there were no new examples on farms.

29% of herds now have above average numbers, with farms which approach 200 breeding animals.

Thanks to the breeding program, based on purebred pairings, a change in the age pyramid was achieved. Currently, there is a good and consistent base to the pyramid, although there are still examples in an age range of 8-16 years. This allows us to forecast that mortality rates, although not ideal, will not reach the levels of the first years of the project.

If we take as a reference the normal annual rate of mortality of breeding stock in our herds as an estimated 3%, we see that in this breed´s case the percentages are far from the normal value. In researching the breed´s problem, we analyze the causes of death which appeared to be the most important - natural death and attacks.
These causes of death are perfectly justified, on one hand because of the advanced age of the population and on the other hand by the type of farm where the breed is present, an extensive (non-confinment) system. In the case of old age, we have already seen measures taken. In the case of attacks, preventive measures were taken.
The number of farms with examples of the breed tripled over these years, experiencing a growth of 200%. The increase is not as pronounced as in the numbers of breeding stock, as the flocks are in a period of conversion to 100% purebred stock, given that all new lambs stay on their birth farms.
There is a rebound in 2005, mainly due to sale of the lamb flocks ex situ (in particular the INORDER flock) and the small flocks that have reached purebred status. If we look at average size of the farms, we see that the increase is much larger, as the numbers go from 15 to 25 breeding individuals/per farm.

The principal problem is lack of animals available for sale, given that the new herds began with few heads and the increase in the number of small livestock farms.
In any case, 29% of flocks exceeded the average size, with some farms having around 200 breeding individuals.

The future of the Galician Sheep

First one has to be clear on the special characteristics of the Galician Sheep. Of particular note, its hardiness, which adapts it perfectly to its environment. They are specialists in taking advantage of the natural resources of our community, sufficient to develop their full genetic potential.
In addition, they have important productive qualities, given their high fertility and rate of multiple births. Twin births are the norm in this breed, and also multiples. These characteristics, along with their excellent maternal instincts and high milk production, allow females to feed their young practically without external support from the farmer. To all this should be added general ease of birth and disease resistance. In addition, we cannot forget that the Galician Sheep form part of our genetic, social, cultural, environmental, and economic legacy.

To demonstrate ASOVEGA´s clear understanding of the Galician sheep breed, and that their special features have a consistent genetic basis and deserve to be retained for the future, and to be able to implement a screening program, we will briefly review literature on how to implement screening programs in a program for meat production, just to see where we should look for the breed´s future.

The first step of any screening program should take into consideration various aspects of production and marketing of the product. According to Alenda e col. (1985):

a) List the characteristics, in order of priority, related to the economic value of the animals.

b) Take into account the breed characteristics

c) Consider the systems of production, depending on the management system and availability of feed.

d) Investigate the diverse preferences of the consumer in each region.

e) Consider the distinct interests of the diverse stages in the chain of production: producer, finisher, processor, and butcher.

All these points are not listed to be automatically included, because many of them are mutually exclusive.

In the following, we will define our selection objectives, the combination of characteristics we want so that the farm produces the maximum economic benefit.

The selection objective in meat production sheep should be to obtain the greatest amount of meat per unit of money invested. This is clear, but has diverse aspects which should be clarified according to the type of farm management. First, we should distinguish two types of farms: those that raise purebreds (intensive (confinment) or extensively) and those that raise industrial crosses.

In the case of the Galician sheep, it´s quite clear that they are raised as pureblood stock in an extensive (non-confinment) system. In this case, a bibliography notes that the most highly prized quality is that of their adaptation to the environment, as such this hardiness should be conserved. Therefore large adult animals are undesirable, given that they require more maintenance, necessitating larger feed inputs to supplement natural resources.

The hardiness of the animal is parallel to its morphology. An improvement in favor of meat production which goes against the morphological standards is undesirable in any heritage or locally adapted breed. A shortening of limbs or increase in muscle mass complicates grazing, so the animals cannot ideally exploit their natural environment and will need supplemental feed. In the end, this results in higher expenses, and consequently lower profitability.

On the other hand, improving growth is a double edged sword. The lamb reaches a commercial selling weight younger but not yet mature and therefore of inferior quality. In the case of increased growth in the lambs which are replacement females, this would produce greater body weight and stature, so that over time we would lose hardiness, primordial characteristic of the Galician sheep, and end up with the annhialation of the geneology and extinction of the breed. It was precisely the intensification of production in search of higher returns which resulted in the replacement of Galician rams by other breeds of specialized meat producing sheep, bringing the breed to the point of extinction.

Its very important to keep in mind the advantages of the breed, and lambs achieving high weight in faster time is not one of them. It would be a grave error to try to convert the Galician sheep into a meat producing breed, since their development as a breed does not derive from that specialization. To try to make the Galician sheep compete with breeds such as the Texel, Charmois, Ille de France, etc., would result in placing the breed at risk once again.

Today we have multiple alternatives when it comes to choosing a breed which adapts best to the characteristics of our farms, and it´s important to know both what we have, and what we want. Once that is clear, one has to study the breeds in existence and study their special characteristics. So we have to blend these two objectives, which should be easy, given that there is a large genetic diversity, both in Spain and in Europe, as well as other continents.