The rare sheep breeds Arapawa and Hokonui are of uncertain origin, but their popularity assures them of a future. Records show that the sheep have been on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds for at least 130 years and their probable origin was a flock of predominantly merino known to have been introduced in 1867.
Given their merino heritage, that early flock probably came from Australia. However, it is also possible that they were introduced earlier by whalers, the first Europeans to settle Arapawa Island.
Whatever their heritage, a dedicated number of breeders have them in their paddocks.
At first, Arapawa sheep seem hunched and ungainly in their walk. Their often ragged fleece is shed and they have little resemblance to the "modern" merino.
Arapawa sheep are not of large stature, but are lean and light-boned. Their heads are clean and narrow, with bright eyes, a long neck, and slender ears.
Among the most distinctive characteristics of the Arapawa sheep are the spiral horns on rams. Fully grown, the head-handlebars can be more than a metre long.
Rather than built for flat-country living, Arapawa sheep have evolved with a light build and rather long legs.
Because they carry their heads low, which is complemented with lower tail sets, the stance of the Arapawa can best be described as hunched.
Arapawa sheep are usually black or dark brown but some have white spots, giving a piebald appearance.
They are rated as great eating, with meat that is cleaner and sweeter than customary non-feral breeds and the flesh has white fat.
HOKONUI merinos have found their home in the rugged hills of Southland for more than 120 years.
Like the Arapawa, they are recognised as a rare breed.
Also like the Arapawa, the Hokonui merinos are black and, at one time, more than 2000 roamed the hills.
The early history of the breed is colourful, including one story that the sheep developed from flocks of Saxony merinos imported from either New South Wales or Tasmania and landed in Bluff in 1858.
Another account says they were driven inland by sealers and whalers in the early 1850s.
Skin samples have since attributed their origins to the German Saxony merino, a large flock that was imported by Robert Develing in the late 1850s.
Grant Wilson, formerly of Oamaru but now living in Wanaka, and his brother, Russell, developed a herd of Hokonui merinos. After Russell's death, Wilson continued to develop the flock and these days runs a semi-closed group on his Te Anau property.
"They are the toughest of the tough," he says.
"They have a great constitution, live through wet and cold conditions and don't suffer from a lot of the usual sheep ailments like footrot.
"They also produce a wonderful low-micron fleece."
The ewes are remarkable producers, lambing three times in two years, although a lot of the lambs are rams.
Wilson sells a few of his have gone to lifestylers and people looking for a good lawnmower, and he also kills a few for the home freezer.
"They make great eating," Wilson says.
"They produce lean meat and are good on paddocks that need a bit of a clean-up."