Scientists search for silky sheep

AgResearch scientists are again searching for lambs with curious coats and need farmers help to find them during lambing.

​Last year scientists asked farmers to be on the look-out for lustre lambs – animals with an unusual coat that is the result of a natural mutation which enhances the lustre characteristics of their wool.

“While we received a number of leads from farmers last season only one was confirmed as a lustre mutant,” says AgResearch scientist Dr David Scobie.

“Unfortunately it was a wether and since he is missing rather important pieces of reproductive equipment it’s not the best news for us. So this season we are again asking farmers to help us in our search.”

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.

“The rare genetic mutation appears to affect not just the makeup of wool, but also the sheep’s resistance to cold because the silky fleece does not insulate as well as other wool,” says Dr Scobie.

“They have a habit of not surviving the cold weather.

“The mutation also affects tooth development; their lambs teeth may not be replaced as they get older, which means that they have difficulty competing with other sheep for food.”

While they are high maintenance these animals provide invaluable resources for wool studies.

“We particularly want to understand what proteins or cellular structure may be special to their wool, and then whether these are the same as those in the lustre breeds,” says Dr Scobie.

“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.

“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 silky or shiny appearance.”

Farmers that think they have identified a lustre lamb can contact AgResearch on 07 834 6627 or email info@agresearch.co.nz.

Note: An image is available showing a lustre lamb. Contact Alex Fear if you would like a copy.