|Officer-in-charge of the Greenland Livestock Research Station, John Vaughan, showing Information Officer, Joyanne Miller, one of the lambs bred as part of the Black Belly Sheep Improvement Programme. (A. Skeete/BGIS)|
Nestled in the green hills of picturesque St. Andrew, the Ministry of Agriculture’s Greenland Livestock Research Station has been making every effort to safeguard one of this country’s most valuable livestock – the renowned Barbados Black Belly Sheep.
The modest facility, staffed by 21 persons, has been in operation since 1975 and has under its aegis, the Barbados Black Belly Sheep Improvement Programme.
Through that project, government has sought to preserve the local breed by maintaining a healthy gene pool of pure Black Belly Sheep. As this country’s only indigenous breed, the Black Belly has been long known for its ability to reproduce all year round, unlike most domestic sheep, and for its tasty meat, which is high in protein and low in cholesterol.
Officer-in-charge of the Greenland Livestock Research Station, John Vaughan, explained that through the practice of genetics, in particular selective breeding, the station sought to ensure the island had a steady supply of high quality Black Belly Sheep.
In summarising how selective breeding works to deliver high quality animals, he said "we find rams and ewes of a particular size and according to genetics, the offspring should be the average of the two parents".
This process, the agricultural official pointed out, sought to improve upon those traits which make the local breed so unique and to ensure future generations of animals maintained those positive characteristics.
Speaking to the Barbados Government Information Service (BGIS) recently, Mr. Vaughan said such research augured well for the future of the local stock as farmers can readily have access to high quality animals for breeding.
"With the genetic work, the animals should become better and it means we would always have the best quality animals available here. Therefore, persons would be able to come and buy breeding stock, replenish their herd while we [the Greenland Livestock Research Station] would continue to have high quality animals here for breeding," he explained.
The Black Belly Sheep Improvement Programme started in the 1980s with the assistance of Lincoln University, in Missouri.??
According to Mr. Vaughan, there were earlier misconceptions that local sheep could not produce meat because they were too small and took too long to mature. However, after visiting North Carolina State University in the 1980s, Mr. Vaughan met with renowned scientist Dr. Lemuel Gould, who advised against crossing the Black Belly sheep with other breeds.
"He did some work with them [Black Belly Sheep]. There were a few in North Carolina and [Dr. Gould suggested that] by doing selective breeding within the breed, we could develop these sheep to the extent that they would grow as fast as any sheep and produce high quality lambs. So, then we were introduced to Dr. Helen Schwarz from Lincoln University, a geneticist, and she instituted the programme," he recalled.
Mr. Vaughan added that through the programme, the station provided valuable support to the farming community by way of delivering high quality breeding stock, whose meat could be sold by farmers on the local, regional or international markets.
"Here we look at providing breeding stock; we are not looking at [selling] meat. When we sell our high quality animals to small farmers, they are the ones that are supposed to be marketing their meat to the supermarkets and hotels and the restaurants. So, we provide the animals which will grow faster and give a high quality meat that they can easily fetch a good price in the supermarkets, restaurants etc.," he noted.
The station continues to make strides in its research and has not been left behind with regard to the latest technological advancements in farming. The Sheep Programme is now fully computerised with assistance from Lincoln University.??
Mr. Vaughan explained that pertinent information is entered into the computer system including the birth and weaning weight of the lambs, the birth type whether single, twin, triplet or otherwise, and the characteristics of the sire (father) or the mother (dam).
The system gives a score on each lamb and those who score over 100 are considered good for breeding stock.?? They are then appraised for physical characteristics of the breed and any abnormalities.?? Some are retained as breeding replacement stock while the rest are sold to sheep farmers to upgrade their herds.
"In our programme, we select the top animals from each computer readout. So, as we continue to breed superior rams and ewes, we step up a notch every time. We have characteristics we select as well. If you look at our sheep they are very uniform in terms of height, size and colour. That is through our special selection programme," Mr. Vaughan pointed out.
Animals which do not meet the average are not bred but fattened for market and sold for their meat.
Stressing the importance of maintaining such high quality stock, the agricultural official believes that Barbados has a rare gem with its local sheep.
"Jamaica has their Red Poll and in England there is the Angus [cow] and this is the only thing we can call our own in livestock. Everything else whether it is pigs, goats or rabbits is imported. This is the only thing that originated here. So, therefore, we must make sure that this breed is kept and maintained in the highest quality," Mr. Vaughan concluded.