Scrapie-Resistant Sheep to Enter Market this Fall

sheep breeding iceland

Up to 15 rams with scrapie-resistant genes will be sold for breeding this fall. Bred in Reyðarfjörður in East Iceland, the sheep carry a special gene and it is hoped that they will help form a more resilient stock in Iceland.

The gene, called ARR, is not found anywhere else in Iceland. It has been recognised internationally as scrapie-resistant, and herds with the ARR gene have already been bred in Europe for some two decades.

Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease found in sheep and goats, the ovine equivalent of mad cow disease. There is no cure, and even one case of scrapie can be a death sentence for an entire agricultural community. If a sheep tests positive for scrapie, the entire herd is culled, the entire farm’s hay must be destroyed, and the entire farm and its implements must be sanitised, either chemically or through fire. Even after this deep-cleaning, farmers are not able to raise sheep for a set time, and the scorched-earth policy may even affect neighboring herds and farms.

After the ARR gene was found out East, an effort was made to breed the gene into the stock as much as possible. There are now some 50 total rams that carry the gene.

Steinn Björnsson, a farmer in Reyðarfjörður, has said that the rams are expected to go for a modest amount. In an interview with RÚV, he stated “after all, sheep farmers have so little money that they would never be able to buy this if they were any more expensive.”

In a recent statement on their website, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority has designated priority zones for the resistant stock. With only a small supply of the so-called “golden rams,” the stock is to be used as effectively as possible, with farming communities recently affected by scrapie and with herds of 300 or more given first priority.

For the full story on the fight against scrapie and the efforts to breed this new, resistant stock, read more in our article: Good Breeding. 

Scrapie-Resistant Sheep Multiply in East Iceland

Karólína Elísabetardóttir - Hvammshlíð - Húnavatnssýsla

The lambing season is going well at Þernunes farm in Reyðarfjörður, East Iceland, where 27 lambs have been born that carry the ARR genotype that protects them against the fatal disease scrapie, RÚV reports. The genotype was first found in Iceland on this very farm last January, through a research project that analysed thousands of genetic samples from sheep across the country. Researchers believe that careful breeding of sheep that carry the ARR genotype could eradicate scrapie from Iceland.

Read More: Good Breeding

Scrapie is a degenerative and fatal disease that affects sheep. Because it is highly contagious and can persist in flocks for decades, a flock in which the disease is discovered must be culled. Within the European Union, sheep that carry the ARR genotype do not need to be culled, even when scrapie is diagnosed within their flock, as research shows the gene protects them from both contracting and transmitting the disease.

Þernunes is home to the only ram so far found in Iceland to carry the gene: Gimsteinn (Gemstone). He carries the genotype on one chromosome, meaning that his descendants have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Þernunes farmer Steinn Björnsson says that by the end of lambing season, he expects around 40 of the farm’s lambs will carry the gene.

Another genotype known to protect sheep from scrapie, T137, was also recently found in at least four Icelandic sheep. Extensive research in Italy has found that T137 protects sheep from scrapie, but it is not officially recognised by the EU as the ARR genotype.