The British lamb supply chain would be more economically and environmentally sustainable if farmers were to switch to New Zealand breeds of sheep, new research funded by Marks & Spencer has suggested.

A trial commissioned as part of M&S’s ‘Farming for the Future’ programme looked at how the use of Highlander and Primera breeds from New Zealand would affect lamb output, production and processing costs as well as greenhouse gas emissions for farmers in the UK.

It found that switching from Mule to Highlander ewes would reduce on-farm costs and greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining product quality, processing efficiency and meat-eating quality, while switching from Texel to Primera rams meant lambs were growing faster and delivered a higher proportion of high-value cuts.

However, there were potential drawbacks for processors when using Primera-sired lambs as they had a higher fat cover and might therefore be less efficient to process.

“The Highlander ewe showed excellent fertility and rearing ability, and the Primera-sired lambs portrayed superior growth rates and had higher wholesale values,” said Dr Ronald Annett, a scientists from the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute who worked on the trial.

He added the results of the trial showed how important production efficiency was and that farmers should not just focus on lamb price or carcase conformation. “Hopefully this study will make UK farmers think about what drives their returns,” he said.

M&S head of agriculture and fisheries sourcing Steve McLean said an increasing number of British sheep farmers had quit the industry because of “commercial volatility” in recent years, and M&S had spent a lot of time working out how the successful New Zealand lamb production model could be replicated in the UK. “We recognise that there are a large number of different production systems in the UK, and this trial is simply about establishing baseline information to allow producers to make their own informed decisions on the production model that best suits their farm,” he added.

In addition to the AFBI, Marks & Spencer also worked with red meat genetics company FocusGenetics, Linden Foods and the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise on the trial.