30 May 2023

Sheep chambers travel to UK to measure methane

6:28 am on 30 May 2023
A sheep in the New Zealand-designed methane measuring chamber in the UK

One of Rob Hodgkins sheep being tested in one of the methane detection chambers in the UK. Photo: Supplied/ Rob Hodgkins

New Zealand-designed chambers to measure the amount of methane produced by sheep are now being rolled out in other countries.

Scientists here have been breeding low emission sheep since 2008 when they discovered that the amount of methane a sheep emits was a heritable trait.

In order to figure out the low emitters from the rest, sheep were placed in chambers which measure their burps.

Other countries have now started adopting the tech with the chambers in use in Norway, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Rob Hodgkins, a sheep farmer in Hertfordshire, just north of London, was the first to use them in England.

He recently tested some of his 2500 New Zealand romneys.

"It was really neat, it was like putting a sheep in a washing machine, you load them in and it only takes 15 minutes, they were really chill. We could tell they weren't stressed because they weren't respirating heavily.

"We measured their methane, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels and we should get the results in a couple of weeks."

Rob Hodgkins farms sheep in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and was keen to see the New Zealand-designed methane testing technology adopted

Rob Hodgkins sheep heading back to the paddock, north of London, after being tested in the methane measuring chambers. Photo: Supplied/ Rob Hodgkins

Hodgkins said he was interested to see the results as his flock were from New Zealand genetics.

"My dad has been importing rams from New Zealand since 2000 and I started importing sheep from the South Island in 2016, so the flock might already have the better genetics.

"I don't want to blow too much smoke up New Zealand's backside but we're big fans of what you're doing there, you're probably five to ten years ahead of the UK when it comes to emission reduction technology."

The chambers were brought to the area by Scottish Rural University College, with funding help from the UK government.

Hodgkins said that with farmers from different countries using the same technology to measure methane a global body of data was being created.

He found social media posts with photos of the sheep being tested on Twitter had got mixed reactions from his fellow farmers.

"It created an awful lot of discussion and dialog. I think about half were fully in favour of measuring methane, they understand if the government and our customers are going to be demanding low methane sheep then we better start breeding them.

"The other half are dead against it saying we're creating a false agenda as methane produced by livestock is part of a complete looped system. So yeah, it's been interesting reading peoples' thoughts."

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AgResearch senior scientist Suzanne Rowe, and a picture of the testing chamber. Photo: AgResearch

AgResearch senior scientist Suzanne Rowe was part of the team that made the methane heritable trait breakthrough, and said it was great to see the chambers being used internationally.

"It's really exciting but it's also a little scary as we let our technology go and we wait with bated breath to hear the results. And so far in every country the results are very similar in terms of heritability or genetic component of what we're measuring is similar in different countries and different breeds.

"So it's a really clear scientific validation, that what we've got is working and it's working well."

Rowe said the measuring chambers were now widely used in New Zealand, with about 10,000 sheep being tested annually.

She said the number of sheep being tested was expected to continue to grow, as would the number of countries using the tech.

"We're in talks with France and Australia about sending the measuring chambers there."

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