AFRICAN 'FAT-TAILED' sheep are to be trialled in the UK, to see if the breed might offer farmers here a diversification opportunity producing a distinctly different meat that is popular with ethnic communities.

'Damara' sheep are renowned for their ability to thrive in harsh environments and gain weight on a nutritionally poor diet, feeding on a wide range of vegetation, to the extent that 64% of their diet can consist of 'browsing' material, placing them in the same feeding category as goats, although they are properly classified a sheep.

The breed also boasts a high resistance to ovine diseases and parasites, and 'exceptional' mothering ability, with the ewes able to produce enough milk to raise twin lambs, and reportedly inclined to fight off predators when attacked.

However, with the breed having originated in Egypt, then migrated west into central Africa over the last few thousand years, the question that the two Welsh farmers now importing Damara embryos and semen really want to answer is how well fat-tailed sheep will cope with rain.

Anglesey farmers Peter Williams and Bedwyr Jones expect the first of their Damara sheep to be born next spring, whereafter they will will breed both pure Damara and cross breed them with Romney, Texel cross, and Lleyn cross ewes.

Mr Williams first came across the breed when he used to farm in Saudi Arabia: "They look more like a goat than a sheep," he conceded. "It is a very lanky looking breed of sheep."

He intends to keep some Damaras on his lowland pastures, whilst Mr Jones will take some to upland areas in Snowdonia, and then compare notes on how the African animals cope with the altogether wetter conditions of Wales.

Farming consultant Geraint Hughes, who has been working with the two men on what is currently planned as a three-year project, noted that there were 'big changes' ahead for the UK sheep sector, and there was real marketing potential in Damaras' 'leaner and juicier' meat, which was a preferred ingredient in a lot of middle-eastern and asian cooking.

"There are over 60 breeds of sheep in Britain, but there's potential for one more!" said Mr Hughes.