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Canadian Arcotts and Grading Up

Canadian Arcotts and Grading Up

Canadian Arcotts- Canada’s Sheep

The Canadian Arcott is a made-in-Canada breed that has its origins in the Animal Research Center at Ottawa (where the acronym ARCOTT derives from). In the mid-1960s the sheep industry in Canada was in the doldrums; some enterprising people involved with Ag Canada developed a program to create some new made-in-Canada breeds that would work well for Canadian producers and kick-start the sheep industry. The full history of the Canadian Arcott, as well as the Rideau Arcott, the Outaouais Arcott, and the DLS, can be found in the document DLS and Arcott sheep: New Canadian breeds, an Agriculture Canada publication written by M.H. Fahmy and J.N.B. Shresta.

Since anyone can access this document online, I will not go into the creation of the breed; suffice it to say that the flocks were closed and the creation of the Arcott strains began in earnest in 1972, and the breeds were released to Canadian producers in 1989. It is, however, important to discuss this sheep as it is at a very important crossroads at this writing.

It is crucial to discuss the Canadian Arcott as a breed, because it is a breed. Many people think that because it is a “synthetic” or “composite” breed, it is somehow less of a breed than one with a longer history, such as the Shropshire or the Suffolk. But let’s examine how the old breeds came about. In a nutshell, people were breeding with what they had and with what was available, and they selected to keep those animals that worked well under their management in their environment. Sheep breeders in Shropshire did not set out to create “the Shropshire”, rather they used what worked, and culled out what didn’t, until they had something that was breeding true, and then they named it after the region in which it was born (thus Shropshire, Hampshire, Suffolk, Dorset, etc.). The Arcott breeds are basically the same thing, they just went about creating them a little differently, most notably in an accelerated and confined fashion. Just because they were created on a shorter timeline does not make them any less of a breed. Those creating them still used what worked, or what met their specifications, and culled out what didn’t work. They used what was working well under their management in their environment. In other words, the ones that did what they wanted them to do. Whether it was done on the grass in Shropshire or in barns in Ottawa makes no difference.

It is curious to me personally that I have never heard anyone talk about Dorper sheep as if they are not really a true breed. Perhaps this is because they were originally imported. But it is interesting to note that the standard Dorper was created very simply, using what is known as inter se mating. The first cross used Horned Dorset x Blackfaced Persian, and then they only crossed F1 x F1. On the face of it, it is something that, supposing you could import Blackfaced Persian embryos, could be entirely recreated here. And yet the Dorper does not seem to be perceived as any less of a true breed. Perhaps this is because the Dorper has such a strict breed standard. However, when breeding F1 to F1, the result can look like either pure breed, and not look like a crossbred at all, so each lamb has to meet the standard. Canadian Arcotts were not created using the inter se method, they were created using an intricate method of specific breeds and crosses, for a specific result, with specific percentages of the foundation breeds. Yet for some reason some people perceive them as less of a breed!

In speaking to other Canadian Arcott breeders, I often hear some doubt creeping into what people are saying, almost as if they are a little reluctant to concede that the Canadian Arcott is a breed like any other, just because it is “synthetic” or “composite” (as if all breeds are not composites of what came before them!), almost like it is somehow not quite a real breed. I think it is very important to realize that just because they only took roughly 25 years to create does not make their status as a breed any less honest, and the “synthetic” tag is doing more harm than good; it is time to drop that tag, I think. The idea that it is somehow not quite a real breed is giving producers an out- if they see an issue (the most common flaws in the breed, in my opinion, are bad toplines and bad feet) it is almost like they can blame its lack of deep history, or it’s all Ag Canada’s fault.  I beg to differ. All breeds have their issues, no breed is perfect or without flaws- bad feet, crooked legs, toed out, poor mothering, etc., depending on the breed- but it seems like we are to accord some of these breeds more leeway because of their long and storied past, whereas the Canadian is still so fresh that breeders are under some sort of edict to “improve” them; if a problem crops up, it’s almost as if they are saying, “Oh well, it’s still so new, you know, we’re still working out the kinks.” They were released 35 years ago. I hope we have the kinks worked out by now.

Now, don’t get me wrong- there are individual animals in the breed that are ending up with humped backs or a dip behind the shoulders or bad feet. But that is individuals, just like you can find individuals with defects and flaws in any other breed you can think of. I won’t name any names, but I would be willing to bet anyone reading this is nodding their head, knowing of such a flaw or flaws in their own breed. The key is selection- we all, as breeders, need to be able to properly select, which means selecting for the best animals, the best performance, the best growth, the best conformation and structure, etc., and selecting against flaws. This means selecting with our eyes and our hands, not just our numbers! We also need to guard against single trait selection. So we need to be able to deal with flaws and defects at the flock level. And if you have a recurring problem that you can’t shake, then you should be able to fix it within the breed, by bringing in outside genetics to address your problem. (And yes, there are lots of lines at your disposal; if you want them, you can find them.)

Which leads me to the whole idea of grading up (that very important crossroads I mentioned earlier).

What exactly is grading up? If you are involved with Canadian Arcotts, or know someone who is, you have probably heard about this more than once over the last five years. There have been two attempts made since 2018 to get the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association to approve grading up in Canadian Arcotts. Both failed, but it was tight, and there is nothing stopping the breeder(s) behind it from trying again. However, just because you have heard breeders talking about it doesn’t mean you actually have a good grasp of what it entails, because it is not common in Canada (it is only approved in four breeds: Karakul, Blackface, Dorper, and Texel). Without delving research paper-style and having to cite sources, I will say that a very quick online search will give you all the details you need, so I will summarize it thus: grading up serves to either 1) rapidly increase numbers of part-bloods in breeds that have very limited numbers of females or lines (for example, at one time Canadienne dairy cow breeders were allowed to grade up with any one of three Brown Swiss bulls, *note the tight control), or 2) create a breed in an area where it did not previously exist (think Valais Blacknose, or for instance if someone decided they wanted Herdwicks or Lonks). Since there was a very good article in the Spring 2023 issue of Sheep Canada explaining the process, I will refer you to that. Suffice it to say that grading up is a process used to increase numbers of breeds in danger or to create them where nobody has them.

Now think of that in conjunction with Canadian Arcotts. Would it surprise you to know that the Canadian Arcott is the 5th most registered breed in Canada? Ony the “big four” have more annual registrations- Dorset, Rideau Arcott, Romanov, and Suffolk. (Up to and including 2018, 5th place was held by Dorpers, but in 2019 the Canadian Arcott took over 5th spot and still holds it today.) So, if I were to suggest that we should grade up in, let’s say Hampshires or Southdowns, remember that we register substantially more Canadian Arcotts every year than we do Hampshires and Southdowns. And if I did suggest grading up in those breeds, you would say that is ridiculous- we can bring in new genetics from outside Canada, grading up would not accomplish anything.

I suggest that because there are no new Canadian Arcott genetics to bring in, grading up would also accomplish nothing in this breed. There are only two ways to grade up Canadians: either 1) start with “purebred” Canadians that are just not registered, and breed them to papered Canadians, or 2) start with a completely different breed or cross. In the first case, all the commercial Canadians would still be related to existing flocks, so in effect you have brought in nothing new. In the second case, you are not even grading up, you are effectively cross-breeding, and eventually you would “grade up” your graded up sheep back up to purebreds, and end up… exactly where you started from! Except- because you have brought in no new Canadian Arcott genetics, you have thrown in… what? One person started with Suffolks, another with Ile de France, another with mules, another with Rideaus, etc. Every single breeder who grades up could change something different, and ultimately after 5 generations still market them as Canadian Arcotts. This is dangerous.

For the breeders who suggest that the breed has some major flaw or flaws that you feel you and only you can fix, and only by grading up, I ask you to please consider the concept of linkage, and what is known as genetic hitch-hiking. Whenever you set out to change a trait, you run a very real risk of making changes to other traits, that you did not count on. I suggest that if you feel the Canadian Arcott is such a poor breed that only grading up can “fix” it or “save” it, maybe you should choose another breed. I used a foundation ram and a first-generation ram via AI, three times. Those rams, in one shot, fixed the feet and the toplines. For all the breeders who feel that we as breeders should have been able to “improve” the breed in 30+ years, I have to say that in my opinion some breeders have done more harm than good. We canfix any flaws within the breed. And before you say there are no outcross lines available, I have this to say: there are outcross lines available, but you may have to travel to get them. And don’t be afraid of line breeding! If a line bred animal doesn’t work, you don’t have to do it again! But if it does work (and they very often do), you have a line that is going to be outcross for somebody else. Without line breeding, we would have all our lines wound up together and then there truly would be no outcross! But there is, and if you can’t go to the trouble to get it, and yet you are still registering lambs that you bred that have an inbreeding coefficient of over 30% (and if you check, you probably are), then you really have nothing to worry about. I assume you don’t register the poor ones.

This is a phenomenal sheep. It is gaining so rapidly in popularity that I cannot see any end in sight. The average annual number of Canadian Arcotts registered in the six years from 2017 to 2022 was 523. It is here to stay, and many of us who raise them and sell out year after year are advocates of the breed, who do not feel grading up makes any sense whatsoever.

One last point- if grading up were ever to be approved in Canadian Arcotts, it cannot be undone. Part of the national flock would end up going down a rabbit hole. In effect, though we would naturally demand fullblood status for the breed, grading up would not increase the national gene pool, it would in reality reduce it, because ultimately there would be entire lines that people looking for fullbloods would avoid. Why would we do that to our own made-in-Canada breed that is such a great sheep?

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