The sheep that built Aus­tralia

North East & Goulburn Murray Farmer - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID RIZZOLI

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.

Lin­coln

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.

English Le­ices­ter

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.

Dorset Horn

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.

Dorset Down

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.

Hamp­shire Down

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.

Rye­land

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.

Che­viot

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.

Shrop­shire

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.

Rom­ney

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.

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