April 27, 2014

Agricultural history in New Zealand. No 1. Importing exotic sheep breeds

Introduction to Blog series
Early sheep imports to New Zealand

Renewed interest in 'exotic' sheep breeds 
Disease concerns
Recent imports
Why the need for new sheep breeds?
Where are the official records? 
The national archives

By Dr Clive Dalton

Introduction to Blog series
This is the first of a series of blog posts on the importation of exotic sheep breeds to New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s. The stimulus for the blogs was to record what I consider to be an important bit of New Zealand agricultural history - which I have grave doubts will ever be prized out of official government files, if anyone today would even know where to look.

Early sheep arrivals New Zealand
All sheep are ‘exotic’ to New Zealand, but for some reason, the sheep breeds imported in 1972 and 1984 are always referred to as ‘exotic importations’ or 'exotic breeds'.  Over the early history of New Zealand and the arrival of the first Europeans, long before there was any concern about introducing diseases, an amazing array of sheep breeds was brought here from all parts of the world, but for a variety of reasons they didn’t survive. The early flock books of the New Zealand Sheep Breeders’ Association record the importation of 30 different breeds.  There seemed to have been no problems with Scrapie arriving in New Zealand with any of these sheep. Sheep scab was a far greater threat which was eliminated by 1894.
Old references show that between 1893 and 1914 the following breeds were imported:
  • Border Leicester
  • Leicester
  • Cheviot
  • Cotswold
  • Dartmoor
  • Dorset Horn
  • English Leicester
  • Hampshire
  • Lincoln
  • Merino
  • Oxford Down
  • Romney Marsh
  • Roscommon
  • Ryeland
  • Scottish Blackface
  • Shropshire
  • Shropshire Down
  • Southdown
  • Suffolk
  • Tunis
  • Wensleydale
Scottsh Blacface - came to New Zealand in the late 1800s but didn't stay.   The sheep in this photo with mottled brown faces are 'mules' or 'greyfaces' - Border Leicester or Blue faced Hexham Leicester  x SBF.  Photo by Don Clegg.

Renewed interest in 'exotic' sheep breeds
In the 1970s a wave of enthusiasm gained momentum to bring more  breeds to New Zealand that we didn’t have, and a whole range of people and organisations got very animated about the benefits they would bring for the economy. 

I was an interested observer at the time as I had arrived from UK in 1968 to do hill country sheep and beef  research, and because of my involvement with Sheeplan (see my blogs), I started trying to remember bits and pieces about the ‘exotic sheep importation saga’.

More questions than answers
I seemed to dredge up more questions than answers, so I had to dig out some of my old MAF mates, (for some sadly it was too late) who were closely involved at the time, and it was interesting trolling through their memories.  Some scored well and some badly – but they all could tell me who they thought would probably still remember – if they were still above ground! 
So I’ve had a big catchup with many old Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) former colleagues, and they have all been supportive of my attempts to find out as much as possible of events, as there’s no doubt that in years to come, after all of us have been collected in the final straggle muster, somebody will want to bring more sheep to New Zealand, and they’ll want answers to three obvious questions:
  1. When was the last sheep importation to NZ?
  2. What happened?
  3. Where is the information and will Mr Google be able to find it
This is not some hypothetical dream for the distant future.  New Zealand could get Foot and Mouth disease tomorrow, and if livestock in large areas of the country had to be slaughtered to contain the disease, importation would be a logical option.
So that’s why I’ve blogged what I’ve been able to find about what happened with the exotic sheep imports.  Clearly there’s a high risk of error as the human memory has its limits, especially for events that happened three decades ago.  So I’d be very grateful for any corrections of the blogged material that I have missed, and especially for new material.

The big worry - where is the official record? 

Dr Neil Clarke
When I visited my former MAF Ruakura colleague Dr Neil Clarke, he had pulled out a couple of the many cardboard boxes he took away with him when he retired from MAFTech Ruakura Genetics.  If he'd left them, without doubt they would be in the dump as the Genetics section wound down to near extinction.

Thankfully Neil kept copies of all the material he wrote to go up through the system, but as we concluded - that's where our knowledge ends. Those boxes are a treasure trove - with no known destination after Neil's office finally closes.

We both agreed that none of our offspring would want our 'stuff', and in any case they would have no room to store it in their own homes. They have enough stuff of their own!

And no museum or library wants it, as they claim they have not space either.  And who would digitalise it?

 Question 3 is the big worry, as where would the official files of events be found now? Nobody I have talked to who worked for MAF at that time has any idea where the information went; they all have to conclude that it would go into the big black hole we used to call ‘Head Office’.
Dr Leyden Baker

Other MAF Genetics staff on retirement thankfully took copies of their bits of the story with them, and some like Dr Leyden Baker  told me he'd had a big clean out and his stuff had just gone to the dump. 

The problem is that there have been so many changes from MAF to MAFTech then to AgResearch, with short-term ‘managers’ with no institutional memory or knowledge or appreciation of history.
The old colleagues I've managed to find all assure me that their original reports and copies of data etc were all send up through the MAFTech pipeline, which they assumed ended up in MAF Head Office in Wellington.  So goodness knows where it all is now that MAF has  recently morphed into the Ministry of Primary Industry (MPI) with the Minister about 13th on the caucus pecking order.  You can predict from this that New Zealand's agricultural history would not figure highly in the scheme of things.

The national archive 
MAF used to have an in-house archivist in the Wellington Head Office, and I have been told that all MAF/MPI archival material is now in the National Archive.  So let’s hope the exotic sheep import story is nicely filed and readily accessible in there.  

Prospects do not look good though, as when my former MAF Information Services Director, Geoff Moss recently spent a morning at the National Archive in Wellington to find me a photo of Dr Sam Jamieson (see later blogs), he described the experience as - 'bureaucratic and complicated'! 
A concern now is what’s going to happen to the files of these old retired MAF retainers after their final muster.  Most of them agree that their families won’t want their ‘stuff’, as they’ll have no room to store it - so it will add to landfill and global warming.  Important agricultural history is going down the offal hole I’m afraid, but nobody seems to be able to stop it.

Any historians interested?
I once tried to make contact with the newly appointed head of the History Department at Waikato University, as the University had been built on land which was once a Ruakura dairy unit – so I presumed (wrongly ) that it may have had a bit of empathy for the cause. 
Also the University is a major partner of the massive National Fieldays ( photo left) proving their great support for the industry in a major farming area. But making contact was impossible. I have not tried again.

Recent sheep importations 
The importation of sheep into New Zealand from all countries except Australia was banned in 1952 after a case of Scrapie was found (see other blogs), so in the 1970s when interest grew to import a range of different European and UK breeds which were deemed to have desirable traits for New Zealand, plenty of pressure was put on the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) to view the request with great caution.
The main reason for the importation was to see how some new breeds, which had shown to have potential in UK and Europe could improve mainly fertility and meat production, as wool was not a priority.

Why the need for new sheep? 
Without doubt, the driving force behind the importation was the Ruakura genetics team of Drs Alan Carter, Neil Clarke (and later Drs Leyden Baker, Howard Meyer and Andrew Parrat).  The Genetics Section was also well staffed with technicians to supervise all stock work and data collection from an importation, which clearly everyone involved saw as no small challenge. 

Finding new ‘genetic resources’ was a fruitful area for research, as national meat and lamb performance in the 1950-60s certainly needed a boost, and researchers knew that their work would attract big farmer interest.  Regular progress reports would be in demand and help fill conference halls for many years ahead.  Then the resulting published papers would help scientists’ reputations and promotion, as well as adding to the great reservoir of scientific knowledge.  It all looked very exciting.

Photo: Dr Alan Carter.  Photo  taken by MAF Ruakura's long-serving photographer, the late Don 'whiskers' McQueen who worked with equal skill  in both laboratory and field. Don was a legend! Photo AgResearch archives.

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