Summary. Seasonal cycles in testicular activity in rams were monitored in groups of wild (mouflon), feral (Soay) and domesticated breeds of sheep (Shetland, Blackface, Herdwick, Norfolk, Wiltshire, Portland and Merino) living outdoors near Edinburgh (56°N). The changes in the blood plasma concentrations of FSH, inhibin and testosterone, and the diameter of the testis were measured every half calendar month from 1 to 3 years of age. There were significant differences between breeds in the magnitude and timing of the seasonal reproductive cycle. In the mouflon rams, the seasonal changes were very pronounced with a 6–15-fold increase in the plasma concentrations of FSH, inhibin and testosterone from summer to autumn, and a late peak in testicular diameter in October. In the Soay rams and most of the domesticated breeds, the seasonal increase in the reproductive hormones occurred 1–2 months earlier with the peak in testicular size in September or October. In the two southern breeds (Portland and Merino), the early onset of testicular activity was more extreme with the seasonal maximum in August. In cross-bred rams, produced by mating Soay ewes (highly seasonal breed) with Portland or Merino rams (less seasonal breeds), there was a seasonal reproductive cycle that was intermediate compared to that of the parents. A comparison between all 11 breeds showed a significant correlation between the timing of the seasonal cycle in plasma FSH concentration and testicular diameter (time of peak FSH vs testis, r = 0·95).
The overall results in the rams are consistent with a primary role of FSH in dictating the seasonal cycle in testicular size and the secretion of inhibin. The earlier seasonal onset in the testicular cycle in the southern breeds of domesticated sheep, and the differences from the wild type, are taken to represent the effects of genetic selection for a longer mating season.