April 23, 2014

New Zealand agricultural history. No 7. Importing exotic sheep breeds

Quarantine on Somes Island
Sheep moved from Somes Island to Mana Island
Sheep moved from Mana Island to Crater Block

By Dr Clive Dalton
From Somes Island to Mana Island

Somes Island 2014.  Former buildings used to house livestock.  
Photo Jim Hammonds
 Tim Harvey remembers that when the Somes Island quarantine flock got to around 500 sheep, the proposed move to Mana became urgent, even though the ink wasn’t dry on the lease agreement, and staff moving there had to live in old sheds in awful conditions till they got accommodation organised.    

John Dobbie also remembers the  work involved getting this underway with some massive movement of shingle off the beach to form a 2m deep base for the woolshed and yards.  He had the job of sorting out the contract for suitable tractors to do the work, with prime emphasis on safety and the power required. Choice at the time was restricted between Russian and Italian models and the Russians lost!

About 70 of the purebreds from the 104 that arrived on Somes eventually got to Mana, the balance including all the East Friesians ending their days on Somes.

Work to prepare Mana 

Mana Island - view from mainland at Mana. 
 Photo Jim Hammonds
 It was obvious that there would be a massive amount of work ahead on Mana, needing enormous attention to detail. Tim Harvey from Somes was already on the job at Mana and Dr Alan Carter Head of the Ruakura Genetics Section headhunted John Dobbie to help out. 

John had been a MAF Sheep and Wool officer in the Farm Advisory Division and like Tim, they were legends for their attention to detail in the sheep and wool world. 

With all the work that had gone into the exercise this far, any stuffups over collecting data would have been the final straw!  The job required MAF’s ‘top guns’ and the Harvey-Dobbie team were the men for the job.

The first challenge on Mana was to produce purebreds from matings of the purebred ewes and rams that went from Somes to Mana.  These were superovulated and the resulting embryos put into Romney and Coopworth ewes sent to Mana as recipients.

Dr Robin Tervit very proud of the first  purebred Finn (left) and Texel (middle) and Oxford Down lambs (right) from the  embryo transfers done on Somes Island.  
Photo: Robin Tervit
 And then the Romneys and Coopworth ewes were mated to the purebred rams to produce F1 crossbreds, and these F1’s in future years were subsequently used to breed F2s and F3’s for mass supply to the industry which took over 3 years.  After all, that was the prime aim of the whole project - to get these genes to farmers in a hurry.

So the procurement of the Romney and Coopworth ewes was another very important job that Tim Harvey and John Dobbie had to arrange. Tim Harvey remembers the Romney ewes coming from MAF research stations at Woodlands, Tokanui and Whatawhata as well as from Lands and Survey flocks at Waihora near Taupo.  Tim and John can’t remember where the Coopworths came from. 

Embryo transfer on Mana
MAF reproductive physiologists Drs Robin Tervit, John Smith from Ruakura and Dr Jock Allison from Invermay did all the ET work on Mana, and Tim remembers some good social evenings after a day of looking down laparoscopes.

Visitors to Mana
The wharf at Mana - departure point for Mana Island. 
Photo Jim Hammonds

 But working on Mana was not only dealing with sheep. This was probably the easiest part. The tricky bit was dealing with the droves of bureaucrats, politicians, scientists, vets, official visitors and plain ‘rubber neckers’ who were involved in the exercise, or just wanted to see what was going on.
I once tried to nosey a trip to Mana wearing my MAFQual ‘information coordinator’ hat, but it never seemed to happen. The advice was always to pick a fine day and not one when the wind was howling direct from the Antarctic ice smelling of penguins. 

Flock expansion on Mana
Tim Harvey remembers the flock (purebreds and crosses) on Mana eventually getting to around 1900 animals. John Dobbie well remembers the strict instructions from Sam Jamieson that no sheep should ever be allowed to die on Mana unless it had been given a final blessing by a veterinary officer, and after death it’s brain removed and sent in formalin to Wallaceville Animal Health Lab in Lower Hutt for examination. Sam  was clearly aware of the need to be alert and act fast if any nasties showed up, especially the dreaded Scrapie.

'There's a moose loose in the hoose' 
As well as being out on the limited pasture the Mana flock had to be provided with a lot of concentrate feed, so farm staff had another population to deal with – mice!  John Dobbie said that the mice were so bad that they’d dug burrows all over the place and there was danger of ground collapsing when you walked over it. 

John says this actually happened when the Tim Harvey's house was so undermined with mice runs, that it slipped off it's blocks and slid into the single men's quarters.
John Dobbie said that a trick they used was to cut the lid off a 20-gallon petrol can and arrange a carefully balanced plank for the mice to walk along to get at some sheep nuts in the bottom.  Their combined weight pushing to get the feed collapsed the plank, and the can would be nearly filled with mice overnight.   

Somes Island in its maximum quarantine days. Manager's house on extreme left and woolshed and yards on right of picture. 
 Photo by Ken Seecombe
Dr Robin Tervit remembers the mice.  He says that when he, Dr John Smith from Ruakura and Dr Jock Alison from Invermay Research Centre, together with Tim Harvey and the genetics staff were conducting embryo transfers on Mana in about 1975 the Island was alive with mice.  

Robin says that they  had a daily battle to rid their accommodation of the pests. 'Att night they came back in and skittered across our faces as we tried to sleep! When we went out to check the donor mating at night, as soon as we turned the lights on in the barns, the whole floor took off as the mice rushed away'. 

'Tim and his crew poisoned the animals and I recall them filling at least one 44 gallon drum with mice from a nights kill. And then there were the penguins that constantly called for mates from under our accommodation – not conducive to sleeping' . The native Mana Island Weta were also at risk from these little free loaders.

Mana to Crater Lands and Survey block

Eric Gibson
As the Mana flock increased, stock were then overflowed on to the Crater Lands and Survey block near Rotorua under Superintendent Eric Gibson.  Eric had the responsibility to double fence the property to stop anything getting in or out, while quarantine control and all associated ‘goings-on’ were still under MAF with some MAF Livestock Officers resident at Crater.    
Eric was a no-nonsense bloke and he was keen on new developments, but like all regional superintendents, he didn't like his territory interfered with.  He had a special warm relationship with the Minister of Lands, Duncan McIntyre. They both liked a wee dram and shooting quail.

Things were going nicely on Mana as the breeding programme continued.  Things were going well at Crater too, where the sheep from the continuing crossbreeding programme were being multiplied in numbers.  The Ruakura Genetics’ boffins were getting some good data for early reports to farmers and papers published in recognised journals, and everyone was keen to hear what was going on.  The farming media was also enjoying covering all this new information.

Sick animal protocol
 Any sick animals at Crater had to be post-mortemed with special emphasis on examining brain tissue for signs of Scrapie.  Up until September 1976, 533 brains were examined at the Animal Health Reference Laboratory at Wallaceville with negative results.  MAF Head Office veterinarian Dr Peter O’Hara told me that the Wallaceville staff got sick of the sight of sheep’s brains!

Wallaceville which made a massive contribution to animal science in New Zealand.  Under 'restructuring' in 2013 it was closed and put up for sale or lease by AgResearch. 
Photo by Allen Heath

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