April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 25. Importing exotic sheep breeds

The Awassi importation from Israel 1990 
More expenditure thanks to MAF 
 Memories from Dr Robin Tervit:  Awassi in Israel

By Dr Clive Dalton

Information obtained from paper presented by Dr Jock Allison to NZ Institute of Primary Industry Management, December 2006.

Awassi importation
Interest developed in New Zealand over the importation of fat-tailed sheep from the Middle East as a potential export earner for the live sheep trade from New Zealand, which had been developed in fits and starts in the 1980s. The Awassi and Najdi breeds commanded top money and there were a few operators willing to give the business a go.  Dr Jock Allison led the charge after working in Saudi Arabia first in 1978 and later in 1985. The company formed traded under the name of Awassi New Zealand Ltd.

Dr Jock Allison. Photo: Otago Daily Times

 Israel was seen as the best source of sheep for a history of tight veterinary control, and it had the ‘Improved Awassi which was a strain selected for milk production for 50 years. These animals were very productive, producing in excess of 500 litres of milk per lactation, being behind only the East Friesian as a milk producer.

·      The import protocol for Awassi embryos from Israel took three years to develop in conjunction with MAF and the Maximum Security Quarantine Advisory Committee (MSQAC). From 1987 onwards Jock visited Israel several times to seek available animals and check the health status of the Israeli flocks through their Israeli Ministry of Agriculture. 

·      Dr Elisha Gootwine from their main Israeli research station was a great help, as Invermay had given them some Booroola rams in about 1983 which over time, Elisha has introduced these Booroola genes into the Awassi to form the AFEC (Fecundity gene) Awassi. This had increased litter size by about 0.6 in the AFEC Awassi animals. 

·       The company paid for MAF Ruakura veterinarian Gary Clark to travel to Israel to do an official health assessment for MAF, and after that negotiate the conditions for the importation. This required considerable funding, and after the 1987 crash funding for such long term and risky programmes was scarce. 
Awassi ewes used for milk production.  
 Photo: Internet
·      Eventually the company got most of the funding from an Australian group that were interested in the Awassi for milk production. The company had received interest from Saudi Arabia from one of the royal princes, but in the end the prince couldn’t bring himself to accept cooperation with Israel for an importation. 

·      The company eventually purchased 65 ewes and 6 rams from a Kibbutz in Northern Israel. As the import conditions defined any outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease within 25 km of the sheep would terminate the programme, the sheep were moved south into the Negev desert to a Moshav where horticultural crops were grown and no livestock kept.  A quarantine unit was set up in a disused turkey shed about 100 km south of where Foot and Mouth disease had ever been recorded in Israel, so it was assumed that all would be safe. 

·      The company leased four shipping containers and converted them into living quarters and a surgery and embryo room. 

Dr Robin Tervit
·      Dr Robin Tervit  went to Israel to freeze the first lot of embryos, and Gavin Struthers was the MAF vet required to supervise the washing of the embryos before freezing. A MAF technician had previously supervised the hormone injection programmes, and Jock did the embryo recovery surgery. Gavin and his wife went on holiday before they were to return for the second round of embryo recovery a month later. Julia Aspinal traveled to Israel to undertake the second and third lot of embryo freezing.

·       Prior to the time of the third embryo collection, tensions were escalating in the Middle East and war looked imminent. MAF then approved the sensible view that Israeli veterinarians could supervise the inspection and washing of the embryos - a decision which would have saved the company a lot of money on travel for MAF staff needed for two embryo collections.

·      About the time of the third collection of embryos, Scud Missiles started to fly into Israel courtesy of Saddam Hussein, and MAF wanted Julia to return home immediately. The company’s Israeli contacts said she was much safer where she was instead of trying to leave the country through Tel Aviv. Again common sense prevailed and she returned to NZ about a week later.

·      Jock says that it was a great team effort but the embryo recovery was disastrous with only 153 embryos being frozen from the 65 ewes collected three times.  Anything that looked remotely normal was frozen, including many embryos, which might have usually been rejected. With British breed ewes it would be expected to freeze at least 800 embryos from the same number of operations. Having put years of work and several hundred thousand dollars into the project to this stage, this was quite a stressful time for all involved in the company.

 Awassi ewe in NZ. Photo: Willowbank Internet

More expenditure thanks to MAF
Jock’s report continues.  A further situation with MAF caused considerable further over-expenditure on the programme by the company. The importation conditions required donor ewes to be tested for a number of diseases at least 10 days after the last collection of embryos. Here is Jock’s record of the saga:

·      Previously I had proposed in a letter to the Maximum Security Quarantine Advisory Committee (MSQAC) that we should be allowed to collect embryos at slaughter, as washed embryos constituted a far lower risk than importation of samples of lymph nodes, spleen, spinal cord from donors for inoculation into kid goats as a ‘scrapie bioassay’. 

·      This letter got lost and finally a few months later someone found it, and I received official confirmation from the CVO Dr Peter O’Hara that we could collect embryos at slaughter. Too late! 

Skud missile. Photo: Internet
·      If we had known this decision about the time of my first request, then the programme could have been done in a little over a month without shifting the sheep to the south. Embryos could have been collected at slaughter at the time of the second heat, and this would have avoided the later chaos in Israel with attacks from Iraq and the first Gulf War. The monetary implications were that we had to spend another $150,000, this clearly being of no particular interest to MAF. 

·      Because of the Gulf War we couldn’t get the embryos out of the country until months later. When I personally had to steer the canister through the Israeli customs and back to NZ. 

·      After arrival, the 153 embryos were implanted into recipient ewes on Somes Island, and after transfer to quarantine at Flock House they became 43 live lambs.

Awassi sheep at Flock House secondary quarantine unit.  
Photo: Dr Deric Charlton
·      About this time, the principal of the main Australian investor wanted to take over much of the management of the programme, and in my view he was making a considerable hash of things, so I decided to sell my 20% share of the company Awassi New Zealand. 

·      After spending considerable amounts of time over 5 years, I was disappointed to leave the project when the hardest part was completed. However, pragmatically it was clear that I was never going to get on with the Australian principal so quitting was the best strategy. 
·      The payment received gave me the capital to embark upon the East Friesian importation which has been much more important for New Zealand. 

·      It is notable however that the Awassi sheep (3/4 Awassi and better) are now being exported in significant numbers from Perth to the Middle East, as a result of the multiplication of an Australian import from Cyprus, plus some of our animals. The sheep milking operations envisaged by the initial Australian partners have not been commercially successful. 

Flock of Awassi sheep taken By Dr Jock Allison on a trip to Turkey

 Memories from Dr Robin Tervit:  Awassi in Israel

Dr Robin Tervit - safely in retirement
I phoned Jock Alison a couple of times before I went to Israel, as the news reported fighting between Israel and Jordan. Jock said that all was OK and so off I went after promising my wife Helen that I would not go to Jerusalem as there were foot/tank patrols and people arrests. 

Jock met me, and we hopped into his rental Subaru (Israel was full of Subaru’s as Subaru had decided to sell cars to Israel which meant that they could not sell to the rest of the middle east) and headed off to the embryo facilities. 

I kept seeing signs to Jerusalem and yes, Jock had missed the turn-off and we drove through the city at night seeing signs to the famous sights and a number of foot patrols.

Eventually we got out of the city and drove down the shore of the Dead Sea, through a road block and eventually to our destination. The surgery was conducted in a converted container. Unfortunately the Awassi sheep didn't like our superovulation protocols and hence we got disappointing results.

There was not much evidence of the war though a few jets flew over very close to the ground.

We only saw a bit if Israel as we drove to the airport and I actually spent no money in Israel. This caused me a bit of grief at the airport as no-one could understand how I could spend a week or so and not spend any money. I was interrogated for over an hour by two different officials and eventually let go – although they followed me until I got on to the plane.

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