Story: Sheep farming
Page 6 – New Zealand sheep breeds
The Corriedale – New Zealand’s first breed
The Corriedale’s origins lie in early experiments in crossing Merinos with long-wool breeds. James Little, who managed Corriedale Station in North Otago, began trying to establish a fixed inbred halfbred (a halfbred which breeds true to type) in 1868 when he mated over 600 Merino ewes with Romney rams. At the Levels Station, William Soltau Davidson began a similar breeding programme in 1874 using Lincoln rams. By the 1890s the inbred halfbred was already widely known as the Corriedale, and this name was officially sanctioned by the New Zealand Sheep Breeders’ Association in 1905.
Jamie had a little lamb
There was much debate about whether a sheep like the Corriedale could be bred. It was known that sheep could be cross-bred to produce animals for fattening – but some argued that when breeding for wool, there was too much variation after the first cross. Experts from England, Europe and New Zealand doubted that anyone could develop an inbred halfbred that remained true to type. James Little, a practical man, just went ahead and did it.
From the outset the Corriedale was bred for both wool and meat. Its wool is long and medium-to-fine with a well-defined crimp, and found a ready market in the worsted trade. The Corriedale is more fecund than the Merino, and its lambs mature early to produce a well-muscled carcass.
The Corriedale was bred for the plains and gentle hills of the drier eastern districts of both the North and South islands. The breed is also farmed in North and South America, Australia and Eastern Europe. It now vies with the Merino as the world’s most popular sheep breed. There are about 2.8 million Corriedales in New Zealand, and 100 million worldwide.
The Halfbred, or ‘colonial’ Halfbred, was bred in an attempt to retain the Merino’s wool quality, foraging ability and hardiness, while increasing its lamb production and improving its carcass conformation for the meat trade.
Unlike the Corriedale – which was inbred after the initial cross of a Merino and a long-wool – the Merino influence is maintained in the halfbred. Commonly, a Merino is crossed with a Romney or English Leicester to produce a first-cross halfbred ram, which is then mated with a halfbred ewe flock. The Halfbred can cope with harder conditions than the Corriedale, and is found in the South Island foothills and high country. The national flock is around 1.8 million.
Looks aren’t everything
Early 20th-century photos of a New Zealand Romney show a big, bold sheep with a clean face and legs – a type well suited to hills and hard country. By the 1960s, the Romney was shorter in the leg, narrower in the pelvis, and covered in wool from its nose to its toes. Over the years the stud industry had concentrated on the breed’s physical appearance, ignoring its productive qualities – so the Romney’s vigour, hardiness and fertility declined.
New Zealand Romney
By the early 1900s the Romney in New Zealand was distinctly different from the Kentish Romney from which it was bred, although the name New Zealand Romney was not formally adopted until 1956. When English breeders shifted their emphasis to meat production the sheep got bigger, but wool quality declined. Wool remained vitally important for New Zealand farmers, so local breeders selected their sheep for both wool and meat production.
The Romney is suited to high rainfall and heavy soils, and has the highest resistance to footrot of any breed in New Zealand. It grows a heavy fleece used in carpets, furnishings and knitting yarns. The Romney was the single most popular breed in New Zealand through the 20th century. It currently makes up about 68% of the national flock – over 25 million sheep.
In 1929, F. W. Dry began researching inherited traits of wool at Massey College. He found that some Romney sheep were genetically disposed to produce a heavily medullated (hairy) fleece, useful in carpets. The Drysdale, which became a commercial breed in the 1960s, grows the coarsest wool of any sheep in New Zealand, and because the fleece grows so quickly it is usually shorn twice a year. It is also used for meat. Numbers stand at 600,000.
Farmers found that Romneys struggled in the steep hill country of the North Island. Geoffrey Peren experimented with crossing the hardy Cheviot over the Romney, and developed the Perendale, which was registered as a separate breed in 1960. The Perendale is naturally more fertile than the Romney. It is hardier and a better forager, and needs less shepherding. It is now a popular dual-purpose sheep in the North Island, and in colder and wetter parts of the South Island. In the early 2000s there were 3–4 million Perendales in New Zealand.
The Coopworth was bred from a cross between the Romney and the Border Leicester by Ian Coop of Lincoln College in the 1960s. The Border Leicester added fertility and mothering ability to the mix. The breed has replaced the Romney on wetter lowlands and easy hill country because of its improved productivity. The national Coopworth flock is around 7 million.