April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 6. Importing exotic sheep breeds

Finding sheep in UK and Ireland
Purebred ewes on Somes 

By Dr Clive Dalton

Finding sheep in UK and Ireland
Without going back to the official MAF Research files (if anyone would know where to look), this is what Dr Neil Clarke, previously in  Ruakura genetics remembers about the flocks he located that had sheep for purchase, and which agreed to have the required health tests done for importation to New Zealand. Most of the flocks were small so in many of them Neil said the choice was very limited.
  • Finnish Landrace (UK):  Cobb; Cadzow; Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO)' Farmer's Weekly farm (100 ewes).
  • Finnish Landrace (Ireland): Department of Agriculture (200 ewe flock).
  • East Friesian (UK).  1 flock. (Mummery breeder)
  • Oldenburg – White Headed Mutton (UK).  1 flock.
  • Oxford Down (UK): ABRO Cold Norton flock. 
  • Oxford Down (Ireland): 1 flock.  
 Texels were high on the NZ shopping list when researching prospects from NZ, but from the flocks Neil visited when he got to UK, the chance of getting a decent sample of the breed was extremely low as the sheep were so poor.  So with much overnight communication back to NZ, he persuaded colleagues and bureaucrats to be allowed to purchase some Oldenburg White Headed Mutton sheep from one flock in UK as a form of compensation.

Also, his father the late Ted Clarke, former Director at the Whatawhata Hill Country Research Station and then Director of MAF’s Sheep and Wool Advisory Service before he retired, always thought the Oldenburg had potential for New Zealand, because it was very similar to the NZ Romney.

Neil remembers arriving at the single source flock in the west of Ireland to inspect Oxford Downs, and the farmer was busy gathering up hay around the paddock left by the baler - on to a donkey cart!  The donkey was delighted to stop work while his boss went to call the sheep.

Purebred ewes on Somes

Somes Island 2014.  Some old sheep pens still there. 
 Photo Jim Hammonds
Somes Island in Wellington harbour is about 3km from Petone and was set up as a maximum quarantine facility for cattle importations, so it didn’t need much alteration (smaller pens and wooden grating) to cope with sheep. 

 Livestock officers from MAF’s Animal Health Division’s Wellington region did the stock work on Somes, and were joined by MAF Research technical officers Tim Harvey from MAF Tokanui research farm near Te Awamutu, and Bruce Trust. 

The challenge was to get the 104 imported purebred ewes to lamb safely, and then rear their lambs successfully on their main diet of concentrate feed as there was very little outside pasture on Somes.  It was by no means a natural life for a sheep in New Zealand!

2014 photo of inside animal house on Somes Island, showing the cattle pens which had to be adapted for sheep.  
Photo Jim Hammonds

 After their first very successful lambing, the purebreds were mated again with their own breed rams that came with them, to produce a second lamb crop. So only purebreds were kept and multiplied on Somes and everything went well with the dedicated care of the staff involved.  In fact things went too well and got ahead of themselves.

Tim Harvey
Tim Harvey has many memories of Somes.  He said that the three Oxford Down rams were especially memorable as they were too big to fit into the weigh crate so they couldn’t be weighed. And one East Friesian ewe was named ‘Big Bertha’ for the same reason.   

She also had an udder like a cow so one of LOs made her a bra to prevent injuries. Sadly her out-of-control udder led to her forced demise which was such a shame after the old girl had come from the other side of the world to do what sheep are meant to do!

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