Dannevirke: Exotic sheep breeds prove popular

By Rachel Wise

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Brian Hales looks over a pen of Gotland sheep.
Brian Hales looks over a pen of Gotland sheep.

If I'd known how far it was to Brian Hale's Wimbledon property I would have packed a thermos and some trail mix.

Brian was holding his first auction of his exotic sheep. Six of the 11 breeds he farms were represented in the sale, a "blackboard auction" in the property's woolshed, with craft items made with the various fleeces on show, as well as sheep for sale and some for display.

Brian Hales' flock of Jacobs sheep. "We've shorn the once and the fleece was magnificent."
Brian Hales' flock of Jacobs sheep. "We've shorn the once and the fleece was magnificent."

As I drove through the gate into a paddock to park, I knew I was in the right place when I was greeted by the sight of a magnificently-horned Pitt Island ram in full flight. Across the paddock he hared and away - probably not keen to be auctioned, I thought.

The lineup of exotic sheep breeds started in the sheepyards outside, with Dorpers and Awassi, the Meatmaster breed that has been developed in Wimbledon, a pen of Gotland sheep and one pen of coloured sheep that Brian had bought on the chance they were Jacobs.

"I have been assured they are Jacobs but there is no record of Jacobs sheep being brought in to New Zealand so I am optimistically investigating their origins," he said.

Brian said the exotic breeds are an interest rather than a commercial enterprise, although there is growing potential for a sheep-milk market in New Zealand.

He is trialling some East Fresian sheep - bred for their milk - on his farm "just to get familiar with them and how to farm them".

"They are inclined to be prolific breeders. They tend to have quads, which is not always for the best as they don't all survive. So I'm looking at a cross which will incline them more towards having twins. They do milk well, even with two lambs feeding I was getting a litre of milk from one ewe. The milk is very white, with a thick layer of cream."

Under cover are the pens of sale sheep - two pens of Gotlands and one of Arapawa Island sheep are attracting the most interest but there is also a lineup of Pitt Island sheep, Demara and some of Brian's rarest sheep - the Karakul.

Brian started his exotic interests a few years ago with the Karakul sheep - a breed that originated in Central Asia.

"The Karakul was developed by the subsistence farmer. A commercial sheep for example a Romney, will have a consistency to its fleece and will be used for one commercial purpose - usually carpet fibre.

"The subsistence farmer needs to have all his needs met: Meat, milk, string, hides for his tent, coarse wool for saddle stuffing and softer for blankets and felted jackets, the softest wool for his undergarments. A Karakul sheep can provide all that as it has a huge variety of fibre in its fleece."

Another rare breed that is showing its versatility is the Pitt Island sheep.

This Pitt Island ram shows the huge horns typical of the breed.
This Pitt Island ram shows the huge horns typical of the breed.

"These are a feral breed. They have survived on Pitt Island without human help since they were imported into New Zealand by Samuel Marsden on his ship the Active sometime between 1814 and 1837.

"They have looked after themselves. They moult instead of needing to be shorn, they have some of the longest horns of any sheep, they are very hardy.

"The meat is beautiful, but because their wool is short it's not generally used for spinning."

Spinner and president of the Feilding Spinning Club Melissa Fryer made an interesting discovery when she tried spinning a Pitt Island fleece.

"I spun it on to a bobbin, plied it into two-ply and washed it as usual. When I went to get it off the clothes line after it had dried, I couldn't believe my eyes. It had expended to three times its size.

"I showed other spinners and they were astounded as well. This is going to be an interesting fibre to experiment with."

The Gotland breed is proving popular with spinners and crafters, hence the two pens of Gotland in Brian's sale being snapped up.

This Gotland ram has a much sought after fleece for spinning.
This Gotland ram has a much sought after fleece for spinning.

"Progress is slow but steady with the exotics," Brian said.

"But they offer a chance for people to choose what they want from their sheep. A chance to develop their own flock answering their own needs. Buyers can pick a breed that is easy to look after, and they'll wake up in the morning looking forward to working with them."

As I left, having resisted a strong temptation to take home a couple of east Fresian ewes and an Asif ram lamb, I reflected on a nice day out and a newfound understanding that all sheep are, most definitely, not alike.

The Pitt Island ram with the impressive horns watched me leave from his hillside. He is not about to be chops any time soon.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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