Up to 80% of Flocks Could Be Scrapie-Free in Next Five Years Skip to content

Up to 80% of Flocks Could Be Scrapie-Free in Next Five Years

By Ragnar Tómas

icelandic sheep réttir
Photo: Golli.

The ARR gene, associated with scrapie resistance, was recently discovered in sheep in West Iceland, igniting optimism for breeding scrapie-resistant herds. Experts estimate that with strategic breeding, up to 80% of sheep herds could possess the protective gene within four to five years.

A landmark discovery

In early 2022, researchers discovered several sheep from an East Iceland farm that carried the scrapie-resistant gene ARR. This was the first time the genotype had been found in Iceland, and genetic researchers recognised that the discovery could prove pivotal to winning the fight against the disease, which has plagued Icelandic farms for over a century.

As noted in an article in IR magazine, scrapie is not transmitted through bacteria or viruses but is believed to originate from a prion protein, which leads to a deadly, progressive disease that deteriorates the nervous system of the affected animals. Unlike bacteria and viruses, prions present a unique challenge, being almost indestructible. Before the discovery of the ARR gene, when the disease was diagnosed in a sheep, veterinarians would need to cull the entire herd – and sometimes even sheep from surrounding farms, as well.

As reported by RÚV yesterday, the ARR gene has now also been unexpectedly discovered in sheep in West Iceland, more specifically in Vífilsdalur in Dalasýsla. Further investigations of related livestock in the region revealed its presence on three additional farms: Háafell, Geirshlíð, and Sauðafell.

80% resistance over next four or five years

Speaking to RÚV, Eyþór Einarsson, a sheep farming consultant at the Icelandic Agricultural Advisory Centre, suggested that the unexpected discovery of the gene gave reason for increased optimism in breeding scrapie-resistant sheep.

Eyþór noted that several farmers are now in the position to exclusively breed lambs that possess the protective, or potentially protective gene, ensuring that all lambs surviving the winter would carry the gene. He estimated, therefore, that these farmers could breed up to 80% of their herds with the protective gene within the next four to five years.

Eyþór added that with the gene being identified in this unrelated livestock — that is, in West Iceland — the process could be significantly accelerated. The unexpected discovery of the gene in the region raises hopes that it could be found more widely across the country; he encourages farmers to continue diligently sampling.

Eyþór also mentioned that a certain diversity was beginning to emerge in the stock carrying the gene. In addition to the two coloured rams previously identified, several yellowish ewes, both horned and polled, have now been added. This discovery should make it relatively easy to breed a colourful and diverse stock within a few years.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get news from Iceland, photos, and in-depth stories delivered to your inbox every week!

* indicates required

Subscribe to Iceland Review

In-depth stories and high-quality photography showcasing life in Iceland!