NARI Suwarna: boon to Indian shepherds

August 13, 2012 by Editor

*Draft under discussion for finalization*

After finding out about the only prolific sheep of India, Garole of West Bengal, Bon nimbkar and his team at the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) wanted to bring this prolificacy into the Deccani sheep of Maharashtra. NCL’s Biochemical Sciences Division, specifically Dr. Vidya Gupta and her team, played a significant role in this project by performing the DNA molecular analysis of the parent sheep as well as their cross-bred offspring. The analysis helped ascertain that a new breed, NARI Suwarna, was achieved with the prolificacy of the Garole and hardiness of the Deccani. NARI Suwarna sheep have almost doubled the income of local shepherds by producing twin lambs. NCL and NARI were jointly awarded the CSIR Award for S&T Innovations for Rural Development for the year 2007 (CAIRD-2007) for this innovation.


Shepherds with flock of Deccani sheep

In India, sheep are raised mainly for their meat and not so much for their wool as in many other parts of the world. Therefore, the income of the shepherd is proportional to the number of lambs born in the flock. Most Indian sheep, however, do not show any prolificacy (capacity to produce multiple lambs per lambing) and produce only 1 lamb per lambing. Deccani sheep are coarse-wooled sheep reared mainly for lamb production on the semi-arid Deccan plateau in Maharashtra state of India. The average litter size of Deccani sheep is low at 1.04. The shepherds in the area need to, therefore, maintain a large flock of sheep in order to get enough number of lambs to sell and sustain their families. Larger flock means larger grazing area, not much of which is available in these parts of Maharashtra. The shepherds, therefore, feel that if their sheep could give twins like their goats did, they’d need a smaller flock. Bon Nimbkar of the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan, Maharashtra, became aware of this local issue and wondered if it was possible to make the sheep prolific.

Dr Helen Newton Turner (15 May, 1908 – 26 November, 1995) was one of Australia’s foremost geneticists. Bon Nimbkar, having recently started the Animal Husbandry Division of NARI, corresponded with Dr. Turner about his search for a source of prolificacy in sheep to increase the efficiency of meat production of the Deccani sheep of Maharashtra. He learnt from her about the ‘Bengal’ sheep, the only reported prolific sheep in India from whom, Dr. Newton Turner claimed, the Booroola/Merino sheep of Australia had originated. Bon Nimbkar started looking for this breed and decided he was going to figure out a way of transferring this prolificacy into the Deccani breed! In 1992, he heard about the Garole sheep of Sunderban, the hot, humid and swampy delta area of the river Ganga, in Indian West Bengal and Bangladesh. The search culminated in the arrival of the first lot of Garole sheep (two rams and two ewes) in Phaltan, Maharashtra in 1993, from West Bengal (a distance of 2200 km). 115 more Garole sheep (13 rams and 102 ewes) were brought to Phaltan in the following 6 years. Performance recording of Garole sheep started at NARI in 1994.

Sitting row (from left) Vidya Gupta, Mohini Sainani, Varsha Pardeshi, Padmaja Ghalasasi.
Standing row (from left): Vicky Poole, Jill Maddox, Steve Walkden –Brown, Herman Radsma, Chanda Nimbkar, Pradip Ghalasasi, Ian, B.V.Nimbkar

After the initial period of difficulties, the Garole sheep bought to NARI started sustaining themselves well in the new habitat. In 1996, Mr. Nimbkar approached NCL’s Biochemical Sciences Division, specifically Dr. Vidya Gupta, to request for her expertise in the molecular analysis of the DNA of these exotic Garole sheep. In 1998, a joint program between NCL and NARI, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), was formulated to introduce the prolificacy of Garole sheep into the Deccani breed. The program started with the crossings between the two breeds taking place at NARI and blood samples being brought to NCL for the DNA molecular analysis. The target of this analysis was the fecundity gene (FecB) that made the sheep able to give offspring. Early results of ovulation rates supported the hypothesis that prolificacy in the Garole is due to a single major gene.

The turning point came in early 2001 when AgResearch New Zealand identified a mutation in the fecundity gene in sheep that increases ovulation rate and litter size (the number of offspring produced at one birth). Groups in France and the U.K. subsequently confirmed it. This made the task much easier for the NCL Biochemical Sciences group. Now they had to look for this particular mutation in the Garole sheep and their crosses with the Deccani! The Garole were found to have homozygous mutation (mutation present in both alleles) of the FecB gene. This result was obtained after analysis of around 200 Garole sheep and was confirmed by the collaborating group of scientists from the University of New England, Australia.

NARI Suwarna ewe with twin lambs

The next step for the program was to obtain a cross-breed with certain desirable characteristics of both, Garole and Deccani. The Garole sheep are unique among Indian sheep breeds in that, an average adult female weighs only 12-15 kg but the average litter size is 1.8! Hence, as much as its prolificacy is desirable, its smaller size is an unwanted characteristic for the shepherds who raise them mainly for meat. The ideal sheep from this cross-breed would, therefore, be those that have the hardiness and big size of the Deccani and the prolificacy of the Garole. To achieve this goal, cross-breeding at NARI and DNA molecular analysis at NCL was carried out for several generations of sheep. Eventually, in 2005, a sheep breed was created that showed the homozygous mutation of the FecB gene, similar to the Garole breed. This breed was named ‘NARI Suwarna’. These ewes have a higher proportion of twin lambs than the ordinary Deccani but retain the looks and hardiness of the Deccani breed.

Next, it was time to put the NARI Suwarna sheep into the local shepherd’s flocks. So far they were born and raised in the protected and monitored environment of NARI. It remained to be seen if they could survive and prolifically propagate in the ‘outside world’ and hence, be really useful to the local shepherds. In 2005, the same year as the creation of the new breed, 20 NARI Suwarna sheep were given to 20 local shepherds. Analysis was carried out over the period of 2005-2009. It was evident that the NARI Suwarna parents and their offspring sustained very well in the flocks of local shepherds. The introduction of this breed into the flock also resulted in doubling of income per ewe to the shepherd due to increased number of lambs available for sale.

Helen Newton Turner Memorial International Workshop focused on the use of Booroola (FecB) gene in sheep breeding was organised at NCL in 2009. On this important note, the role of NCL’s Biochemical Sciences team in this project concluded. The knowhow for carrying out the DNA analysis has been transferred to NARI by the NCL Biochemical Sciences team and these tests and analyses are being regularly performed there even to date. Through a successful breeding program of these sheep, a nucleus flock of 500 NARI Suwarna ewes has been established at NARI and the shepherds in and around Phaltan area continue to benefit from them.

Dr. Vidya Gupta receiving CAIRD 2007 from PM Dr. Manmohan Singh

The second CSIR Award for Science & Technology Innovations for Rural Development for the year 2007 (CAIRD-2007) was jointly awarded to NARI and NCL, for this innovation aimed at improving lamb production and enhancing the viability of the Indian sheep breeding industry. This is a landmark project where a publicly funded laboratory, CSIR-NCL, worked very closely with a NGO, for improvement of the rural sector. Dr. Vidya Gupta received this award at the hands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi.


  1. Interview with Dr. Vidya Gupta, Biochemical Sciences Division, NCL
  2. PubMed publication: The ovine Booroola fecundity gene (FecB) is linked to markers from a region of human chromosome 4q
  3. Presentation for ‘League for Pastoral Peoples’ by Dr. Chanda Nimbkar of NARI
  4. Paper presented by Dr. Chanda Nimbkar of NARI at 7th World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production, 2002


  • Writing and editing : Dr. Radhika Naik Deshpande
  • Compilation of material : Dr. Radhika Naik Deshpande, Dr. Vinita Panchnadikar, Devanshi Patel

Document histrory:

  • 13 Aug 2012 (Radhika) Published draft for suggestions, discussion and finalisation.