April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 13. Importing exotic sheep breeds

 Harvesting the exotic sheep embryos in Denmark and Finland
Dr Robin Tervit’s involvement
More of Robin Tervit's memories 

 By Dr Clive Dalton

 After the disaster of MAF's first importation of exotic sheep breeds as live animals in 1972 , the second importation in 1984 was only be allowed by MAF and the Maximum Security Quarantine Advisory Committee (MSQAC) as frozen embryos and frozen semen.  Denmark and Finland had the sheep the New Zealand MAF Research Geneticists wanted, and their health standards were also acceptable for importation.

 Harvesting embryos

Harvesting the embryos involved massive cooperation and help from people in both countries to help Dr Robin Tervit from Ruakura who had overall responsibility to harvest the frozen embryos for the importation.

 Photo shows Dr Robin Tervit recovering embryos from the exposed uterus and fallopian tubes of a donor ewe in Finland. Dr Vesa Rainio from Finland is assisting.  Stuart McDiamid in background.  Photo: Robin Tervit.

Robin remembers being called to Agricultural Research Director Dr John Hutton’s office to discuss the ET work he was about to undertake in Europe, and coming away with the clear message that his rear end would be in trouble if he didn’t get good embryo survival results post freezing. Hutton was clearly under the gun from higher up the MAF hierarchy, and he was never a man who liked to back down on issues.  Fortunately, Robin got good results with help from local colleagues.

In the  programme, the embryos for export had to be washed 10 times before freezing to ensure they were not contaminated by any disease organisms not wanted in New Zealand.  This was a fairly new development at the time.  Semen from each breed was also processed and frozen for transport to New Zealand.

Dr Robin Tervit’s involvement
I asked Robin some questions about what he’d been up to with his ET work in Denmark and Finland.These are his replies:

How long were you working on the sheep?
Late August 1984 through late October in Denmark, and late September through late November in Finland. The Danish ewes were divided into 3 groups and one group treated per week for 3 weeks from late August. The interval from start of treatment to surgery was about 40 days and so the ewes were operated on and embryos recovered during the first 3 weeks in October. 

We left Denmark during the early treatment phase of the Danish ewes, and started the Finnish ewe treatment about a month later than the Danish ewes (i.e. in late September/early October). Finn surgery was about a month later than in Denmark (November). So, I was away from NZ for just over 3 months.

Were there any Kiwis helping you? 
Yes, MAF veterinarian Stuart MacDiarmid was with me for the whole time. He was responsible for animal health issues and also did a lot of the surgery on the donors. 

I recovered the embryos from the uterine washings and then processed them through the freezing process. I accompanied the frozen embryos back to NZ.  

 Full technical details are given in the 1986 paper below.
Tervit H R, Baker R L, Hoff-Jorgenson R, Lintukongos S, MacDiarmid S C, Rainio V. 1986. Viability of frozen sheep embryos and semen imported from Europe.  Proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production 46:245-250.

More of Robin Tervit's memories  
 The donors were housed in a lovely historic barn which was not being used by anyone. I can still see the Danes' look of disbelief when we took to the pens with a spanner and sledge hammer to make them large enough to accommodate the large donors and their rams. 

Surgery was conducted at the vet school in Copenhagen and went very well. The only problem was that the vet students assisting us started to get difficult to commit to assisting with the surgery. We discovered that they were not getting paid – a talk to Leyden Baker soon sorted this out.

Stuart McDiarmid and I stayed in a hotel in Copenhagen and , after traveling to Finland to begin the donor hormone treatments, we returned to our hotel to find that we had been evicted and replaced with some refugees from the Middle East. No attempt had been made to find us alternative accommodation, so we had to go and find somewhere else to live.

Conditions were nowhere near as salubrious as in Denmark – but everything worked well showing that you don’t need fancy facilities to achieve good results. The animal housing barn was old and the water pipes froze, with the result that we had to carry drinking water to the animals when it got cold. The donors were carried to and from the surgery in a VW Combi van. The surgery was in an adjacent building and the embryologist (me) was squashed into one corner.

Stuart and I were accommodated in a house near the animal barns. It had a sauna but since we did not share the Finnish enthusiasm for hot rooms we used it mainly to dry our clothes. We did have some saunas with Finnish people, and I still remember the heat hitting the lining of the nose – boy they liked the temperature high.

It snowed while we were in Finland and though it was cold this was balanced by the brilliant northern lights.

 Roger Marshall's role.
Noted Coopworth breeder and New Zealand Meat Board member as asked to visit Denmark and Finland in 1984 on behalf of the NZ United Breed Societies to approve the sheep that were going to provide the genetics (embryos and semen) for the  NZ sheep industry.  It was an important responsibility and Roger was certainly an ideal person to do the job. 

He worked in cooperation with breed society executives in both countries and Dr Leyden Baker from MAF.  He reported his work to the UBS on 11/9/1984.

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