Scientists search for lustrous lambs

AgResearch scientists are on the look-out for lambs with curious coats and they need farmers help to find them.

Last year, a lamb with an unusual wool coat was identified by a farmer and brought to the attention of AgResearch staff involved in the AgResearch Enhanced Wool Quality project.   This picture shows the lamb (facing) identified in the 2011 lambing season.

“The farmer thought his lamb was the result of a cross between a goat and a sheep, however subsequent genetic testing by my colleagues showed the lamb was 100% sheep,” says AgResearch scientist Dr David Scobie.

“The unusual coat was the result of a natural mutation that enhanced the lustre characteristics of the wool. Unfortunately this lamb has not survived into this season.

“We are very interested in locating lambs with this unusual wool coat, because studying a naturally occurring mutation with such a dramatic effect on fibre characteristics provides a unique opportunity to understand the genetic and physiological mechanisms affecting fibre quality. These animals occur rarely, but they provide invaluable resources for wool studies,” says Dr Scobie.

Now that this season’s lambs are on the ground, the team would like to find other such animals in New Zealand – and they would like farmers’ help to do this.

“Lustre mutants grow wool that resembles that from the “lustre breeds” like the English Leicester, Border Leicester or Lincoln and to some degree the Finnish Landrace or the mohair from an Angora goat,” says Dr Scobie.

“Some of the lustre mutants that have been reported previously have grown wool that is quite likely to cott or felt, particularly those found in the Merino breed. The propensity to felt may be due to a protein difference or changes in the surface structure and if we could control that we could reduce the amount of cotting on the sheep or felting of the end product – unless of course felting is a desirable feature of the final product,” he says.

Natural mutations have played an important role in New Zealand’s farming history.

“Many years ago, a mutation in Romney sheep produced the Drysdale, which is a very hairy sheep with horns that became a significant breed, though numbers have declined,” says Dr Scobie.

“The identification by AgResearch scientists of prolificacy gene mutation, the Inverdale® gene, and the subsequent development of the genetic test for it has given farmers a new option when making reproduction management decisions.

“Not all mutations become so useful or productive, but they are always very helpful in improving our understanding of normal animals.

“If you think you have a lamb with an unusual coat take another look. Lustrous wool looks quite like mohair from an Angora goat, with a shiny appearance that hair care companies would like to be able to reproduce and sell in a bottle!“

Farmers throughout New Zealand that think they have identified a lustre lamb can contact Dr David Scobie by phoning 03 321 8688 or emailing

For further information contact:
Alex Fear
AgResearch Senior Communications Advisor
Phone 64 7 8346636
Mobile: 021 809 183