SHEEP production has a long history in Britain, with the first woven woollen cloth reported to have been during the Bronze Age in 1900 BC but wool is no longer the major focus.
The UK became a major exporter of woollen cloth in the 14th Century and by the end of the 15th Century was known as a nation of sheep farmers and cloth manufacturers.
Speaking at the 8th World Merino conference last month in France, Sustainable Livestock Systems sheep geneticist Joanne Conington, Scotland, said these priorities changed around the time of Word War ll and sheep farmers moved away from wool production and towards meat.
"The main goal of sheep farming in the UK now is meat production," Ms Conington said.
Unlike the rest of Europe where sheep production is not the main focus of agricultural production, UK sheep production is the main farming activity and a large part of mixed farming enterprises.
Ms Conington said for most European countries, pig meat and beef production had a greater focus and sheep production was traditionally confined to the marginal land areas, which are unsuitable for cropping or other livestock production.
In 2008, there were 15.6m breeding females in the UK, which has declined dramatically in recent years from the 21m in the previous decade.
"A third of all sheep meat produced in the EU 25 countries originated from the UK in 2008," Ms Conington said.
The UK sheep industry is unique in that it has a stratified sheep breeding industry where breeds and crosses are used to match the different lowland, upland and mountainous environments.
Ms Conington said purebred hill breeds were used in the hill and mountain areas and the
main hill breeds included Welsh Mountain, the Scottish Blackface and the Swaledale.
"After four or five lamb crops, the ewes that are fit enough to breed for another year or two are often sold for crossbreeding onto a longwool breed," Ms Conington said.
"This resulting F1 female is numerically the most popular breeding female found in Wales, Scotland and England respectively.
"They combine the benefits of high fertility and size from the Bluefaced Leicester breed with the hardy characteristics of the mountain breeds to create a productive ewe that is difficult to beat for performance in a range of different sheep farming systems."
The F1 ewes are usually mated to terminal sire breeds such as the Texel and Suffolk to produce lambs destined for meat production.
Ms Conington said sheep breeding programs in the UK differ according to the breed, although all have the common objective of producing meat for lamb production.
"Since the mid 1980s, terminal sire producers have concentrated on lean meat production incorporating in vivo predictions of fat and lean to improve lean growth rate," she said.
The selection criteria were live weight (LWT), ultrasonic fat depth (UFD) and ultrasonic muscle depth (UMD) adjusted to a constant age of 150 days.
However in recent years it has been acknowledged that a broader remit is required for some terminal sire breeds in terms of their ability to lamb unaided and for lambs to be reared with minimal intervention by man.
Ms Conington said for this reason there was considerable effort being expended to incorporate lambing ease and lamb vigour into breeding programs for sheep breeds where this is a problem.
"Future breeding goals are also likely to place greater emphasis on the efficiency of production as the issues of sustainability become more important and also disease resistance," Ms Conington said.
Like Australia there has also been a surge in interest in wool shedding breeds such as the Wiltshire Horn and the composite that originated from this breed, called the Easycare, in the UK.
Ms Conington said this was mainly because the revenue accrued from wool is less than the cost of shearing and managing the problems associated with having wool, such as the removal of daggs to prevent fly strike.
The Easycare breed was developed by Iolo Owen in Wales and was derived from the Nelson Welsh Mountain, Welsh Mountain-Cheviot, which were crossed twice to the Wiltshire Horn.
Ms Conington said the aim was to produce a breed of sheep which would require minimal shepherding and veterinary care and yet offer good meat yields and lambing ratios.
"The breed sheds its wool, reducing or eliminating labour costs associated with shearing and the removal of soiled wool from lambs prior to slaughter," Ms Conington said.