The sheep that built Australia
WITH the approach of the season of sheep shows and spring ram sales, it is interesting to reflect on just what it is that makes Australia the world’s leading sheep producer for both wool and prime lambs.
Australians, generally, are familiar with the Merino sheep with its bold, upstanding appearance and its reputation as the animal which produces the world’s finest wool.
But few know of the other breeds of sheep which can genuinely lay claim to being the foundation upon which the Australian sheep industry has been built.
The Merino, since its introduction to New South Wales by Captain Waterhouse in 1790 and subsequent development as Australia’s premier sheep by pioneers such as John and Elizabeth Macarthur, and the Reverend Samuel Marsden, has dominated the wool image of the Australian sheep industry.
But, it is the little known British breeds of sheep which have been the backbone of the Australian sheep industry since the very earliest days of settlement in this country.
Long before, other breeds were laying the foundation of the industry - breeds which are now facing an uncertain future in Australia as their numbers continue to decline.
With this in mind, in 2002 a group of concerned Victorian sheep breeders headed up by leading sheep man, Ian Bucknall, met at the Royal Melbourne Show and formed Heritage Sheep Australia, whose mission is: “Saving the breeds that were the foundation of our sheep and wool industry”.
Heritage Sheep Australia believes that, “The genetic heritage of these sheep is to be treasured”.
To this end, nine breeds of sheep: Lincoln, English Leicester, Cheviot, Romney Marsh, Shropshire, Dorset Horn, Dorset Down, Hampshire Down and Ryeland, were nominated as being endangered in this country.
Heritage Sheep Australia is affiliated with the Australian Stud Sheep Breeders Association (ASSBA) which represents some 21 different sheep breeds in Australia.
An ancient breed firmly established in Lincolnshire by the mid-18th century which first arrived in Australia in 1865.
Two Victorian flocks: Ian and Rae Christie’s Garvald at Hamilton, and Richardson Brothers’ Grassmere at Newlyn trace their continuous registration since their foundation in 1873.
There are currently only eleven Lincoln studs listed in the Australian Flock Book.
The Lincoln’s special place in Australia’s sheep industry was in the development of this country’s own dual purpose sheep breeds: the Corriedale, Polwarth and Comeback, renowned for their meat and wool production.
Lincolns produce the heaviest and longest stapled fleece of all the sheep breeds with a broad crimp and attractive lustre.
The wool is used for roller capping (wrapping around the rollers in wool scouring) and the making of wigs for the legal profession.
One of the oldest British sheep breeds.
These animals came into prominence in the mid-1700s, when Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire improved the breed as a meat and wool producer.
It is probable that these sheep were in Australia from the earliest days of settlement, but the Leicester as it was then known, officially arrived in Australia when the Bryant Brothers brought it to Tasmania in 1824.
Numerous other large pastoral companies imported the sheep into Tasmania until around 1838.
Over the next 100 years the English Leicester was crossed with other breeds, including the Merino, to produce prime lamb dams.
Recognised as one of the oldest sheep breeds in Great Britain.
It was introduced into Australia in 1895 and immediately gained enormous popularity because of its quick growth to early maturity, fecundity and its ability to breed out of season.
However, it was in the 1930’s that the breed came into its own in the breeding of Australia’s own Poll Dorset sheep.
Today the Poll Dorset produces around 95 per cent of all the prime lambs produced in Australia for the domestic and export markets.
Bears very little relationship to the Dorset Horn, being developed with numerous crosses of Berkshire Knot, Southdown and Wiltshire Horn.
However, it was described in early days as “the local polled cousin of the Dorset Horn”, although with its dark face and legs it bears no resemblance.
The Dorset Down was introduced into Australia in 1939 by L.J. McMaster of Coolah, New South Wales with the purchase of 20 ewes and two rams from England.
In Victoria, the Woodhall Dorset Down Stud was established in 1946 by Walter Turnbull and Sons at Wedderburn with the purchase of five in-lamb ewes from England and today is still owned by the family being operated by Margaret and Colin Chapman at New Gisborne.
Developed early in the 19th century by crossing Wiltshire Horned sheep with the Berkshire Knot and the Southdown.
This gives these sheep a similar appearance to the Dorset Down and, like this sheep was regarded as a proven prime lamb breeder.
The origins of the Ryeland sheep are lost in antiquity, but are at least traceable back to the 11th century.
It is believed that they were derived from the Spanish Merino.
Medieval records show that the monks from Dore Abbey ran 3000 of the sheep, whose wool was prized and popular for export to Flanders.
During the 16th century Ryelands experienced increased popularity due, as legend has it, to the interest of Queen Elizabeth I, who was given a pair of stockings made of Ryeland wool and was so impressed with them that she ordained that all of her clothing should be made of Ryeland wool.
The breed was introduced into Australia in 1919 and today is still used by some breeders as a terminal sire for prime lamb production.
The Cheviot, which was introduced to Australia in 1938 quickly gained favour as a terminal sire but has declined over recent years and no longer plays a major role in the prime lamb industry.
The Cheviot originated around the mid–1870s in the Cheviot Hills, along the England and Scottish border.
When first introduced, Cheviots were popular in South Eastern Australia for their ability to withstand cold, wet winters and their ability to forage in hot dry summers when feed was short.
From 1900 to 1920, some 6700 Shropshire rams were exported around the world making it one of the most popular breeds at that time.
It originated from sheep that roamed the common on the Shropshire and Staffordshire border during the 19th century.
Shropshire wool is a Downs type suitable for hosiery and hand knitting yarn and the sheep is one of the heavier wool producers among the mediumwoolled breeds.
The breed was first introduced into Australia in the 1850s and dominated export lamb production for many decades being immensely popular around Federation.
Formerly known as the Romney Marsh, the Romney played a major role in the development of the Australian Poll Dorset along with the Ryeland.
The Romney is also one of the oldest known breeds of sheep with its origins tracing back over 700 years to the 13th century.
Romneys were noted for their long, dense fleece and the wool became one of the most prized wools in the woollen industry.
Romney sheep are prized by many prime lamb breeders as they produce excellent lambs for the domestic and export markets but also make economical self-replacing ewe flocks.
OLD EWE: Champion and Reserve Champion Shropshire ewes from Marilyn Mangione’s Clarendon Downs Stud at Doveton.