The award of the 2023 NIAB Variety Cup for Crusoe winter wheat adds to previous awards of the NIAB Cereals Cup to Einstein winter wheat and to Claire winter wheat to make it three top awards for the breeding team led by Bill Angus during his time running the Nickerson wheat breeding programme.

“The NIAB Variety Cup and the NIAB Cereals Cup are awarded to varieties that show outstanding merit and value in their marketplace, and to varieties that have made a major contribution to crop productivity, and there are a number of factors that come together to create a success story like Crusoe,” explains Bill.

“Crusoe was the product of a long term programme of incremental successes and underlines the fact that plant breeding is a long term activity – and building genetic resources takes time.

“The original material, which gives the variety its distinctive colour, originated from a cross made by Sharpes using Fresco (from PBI) and a line carrying an introgression from Triticum dicoccoides. This cross would have been made in the late 1980s/early 1990s and the introgression is probably the source of the slightly higher protein content found in Crusoe.

“This cross resulted in a variety called Shamrock which was added to the NIAB Recommended List in 1999. Shamrock won a NIAB ‘profitability challenge’ in 2000, but subsequently failed commercially because of yellow rust susceptibility.

“Shamrock was used by Nickerson to produce Gulliver from a cross with Aardvark (from Cambridge Plant Breeders), and though this entered UK trials, it failed to have just that edge for quality and was rated as a nabim Group 2 variety.

“However, its white flour colour was noted – something that is a key character for a Group 1 variety. Gulliver was then crossed with Cordiale (a KWS variety) to produce Crusoe. One line from this cross (WW25) entered UK trials in 2009 and, following intense scrutiny, was added to the Recommended List in 2012 at the end of a 40 year breeding journey.

“The final link on the path to success was end user engagement, and this was critical. A long standing link was with Warburtons who made many test bakes to assure themselves that it met their standards of very high quality combined with baking performance consistency.”

Bill emphasises that the lesson to learn is that Crusoe originated from a wide cross using a related species as the donor, and breeders need to sustain this approach to continue to make progress on the major traits for yield, disease resistance and grain quality.

Optimum performance came through bringing together germplasm from different breeders – and free exchange of genetic resources played a significant part – this is a freedom to operate that cannot be eroded.

He sums up the attitude he instilled into the Nickerson team and still strives to bring to his current wheat breeding programme at F1 Seed Ltd: “knowing your genetic material, plus hard work, added to a passion for the job in hand are critical – and every breeder will tell you that a slice of luck is also important.”