April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 10. Importing exotic sheep breeds

Lands and Survey Crater Block quarantine station
Collection of data from sheep breeds
Scrapie confirmed
Slaughter and burial of sheep

By Dr Clive Dalton

Data from Crater
The Crater flock  of 5192 ewes waiting for their slaughter. 
Photo by Ken Seecombe
 The data that were initially obtained on the exotic sheep breeds from the Mana Island quarantine station, and then the extra data that were being collected from the sheep at Crater, certainly excited the scientists. The Finn had boosted lambing percentage beyond belief, and the East Friesian and Oxford had given lamb growth and carcass a massive lift too.

Dr Roland Sumner
Despite wool not being a priority for the importation, Dr Rowland Sumner MAF’s specialist wool scientist on the staff at Whatawhata collected plenty of data at Crater.   He recalls taking a team down to Crater in 1977 on his return from a Ph.D. in Australia, and mid-side clipping over a 1000 exotic hoggets. 

There were six staff and six sets of clippers going with Roland measuring the size of the patch the wool came off, and then calling out the dimensions of the patch to the records technician. As this was only done once, the data collected was of no real use in the end, and was trashed after the sheep were slaughtered.

Slaughter at Crater
Things had been going well at Crater with sheep numbers multiplying and geneticists getting good data about what the breeds could contribute to the industry.  But as soon as the bad news from Mana got to the technical staff at Crater (Tim Harvey, John Dobbie, Ian Malthus, Sid Keane, Rob French, Bruce Trust and Denys Guyton), there was massive panic and disappointment.  It was hard for everyone to take in after all their hard work, but the axe had to fall on all the Crater sheep.

The big crater at Crater

The exotics final resting place - dug by the Ministry of Works.  
Photo by Ken Seecombe
 Slaughter and burial of the 5192 sheep at Crater was done over the 15, 16 and 17 August 1978 by MAF Animal Health Division Livestock Officers under MAF vets’ supervision.

Ian Malthus said he and Tim Harvey built a raised double race with a walkway between them for the stunners to operate from. After all the sheep in the race were stunned by captive bolt, they were rolled on to a waiting truck for delivery to the mass grave. 

Slaughter race.  Photo by Ken Seecombe
The guys stacking the truck slit each sheep’s throat with a knife, to make sure they were dead – a messy and dangerous job with kicking bodies, blood spurting and sharp knives.  The Ruakura Genetics technical staff then had the next job of opening up the sheep to count the number of lambs in utero and position of presentation.  All tags were removed as part of this exercise.
Dr Neil Clarke assures me that a scientific paper was published from these data.

Ian Malthus said that the race worked so well that AHD filmed and measured it all, with the intention of building a mobile version that could be quickly sent anywhere in the country if needed.  I wonder where are these plans are now in MPI, when (not if) they were ever needed again?

Hamilton Regional Veterinary Officer (RVO) Frank Williams controlled the work of Animal Health Division (AHD) Livestock Officers, and provision of all materials and facilities needed for the slaughter. Sam Jamieson as Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) was in overall control from Wellington.  

 It would have been interesting to have heard Sam’s views when all this slaughter was going on – as it must have been very tempting for him to be dining out on a ‘what did I tell you’ – and plenty of sad Och Ayes!
Moving slaughtered sheep. Photo by Ken Seecombe
Former Livestock Officer (LO) Dave Clapham from the Hamilton MAF office was part of the slaughter team directed to Crater along with colleagues Dave Scott, John McCandlish, Grant Litchtwark, Alan Cato with Colin Latham as their slaughter supervisor.  

Brian Fraser as the Seniour LO in the Hamilton office used to officially visit the mayhem, but Dave says only got in the way and never did any work! The LO working day was from 8am to 5pm day and Dave said that was enough for anyone. They were accommodated in Rotorua at the Queen’s expense and they needed it!

David Clapham
Dave remembers a problem that because of the raised race the sheep were held in for stunning, the LOs had to work at an angle which must have had an effect on the angle the bolt went into the top of the sheeps’ heads. and hence the effect of the stun. So he remembers a complaint coming down to Colin Latham from the Ruakura Technical team that some sheep were not being completely killed and were still kicking when they had to be opened up by the Ruakura technicians to count the lambs. 

This was not just nasty – it was seriously dangerous.  So from then on, the LOs had to cut the throats of all sheep immediately after stunning which slowed up the job, and greatly added to the mess.

Dave being an ex-front row forward was no wimp, by he admits after the first day or so of the misery, the job got to him with all the blood around – and he wasn’t alone.  But he says it was the camaraderie of being in a group with his mates, and a bit of good humoured banter that kept them going.

Ian Malthus remembers that the Crater technical staff were officially not allowed near the slaughter, and only weighed the animals immediately before slaughter. They were also banned from any involvement with the LO staff, but one or two of them broke the rules and watched some of the gruesome work, even lunching with the LOs afterwards.

John Dobbie recalls the slaughter as an awful experience.  Anybody like John and Tim Harvey who had worked with sheep all their lives, and who don’t mind having to kill one or two sheep for the house or the dogs – but the prospect of facing the death of thousands and seeing them being pushed into a big and very bloody hole and heaped up by a bulldozer, was not a nice experience or memory to this day.

John remembers the physical difficulty of pulling each ewe on to its back to get at the belly, then cutting her open to expose the uterus and collect the data both on the side of the hole and down in the hole. The job was totally exhausting and very demoralizing for everyone after so much expectation from the project.

Photos shows ewes being opened up to count lambs in utero and ovulation rates from their ovaries. Photo by Ken Seecombe

 There was also concern by MAF research staff about what would happen to their jobs now this major project, which would have given work for years, had literally been buried?

All I can add after hearing from the folk who did all this traumatic work is - God help us when (not if) we get Foot and Mouth disease and have many millions of animals to slaughter, as there are no Livestock Officers left with the skills needed in the MPI new structure .  There is no way we could  cope!

Pinus radiata Crater
Now no more pasture grows on Crater as no livestock will ever be allowed to graze there.  Pinus radiata rule supreme. 

You have to wonder what will happen over time.  Some future archeological dig will get a surprise and hopefully they’ll come to the right conclusion when they find 2000 skulls with holes in the top of them!

Crater's Radiata pines a couple of years after the sheep.  Photo by Ken Seecombe

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