History in the making
A sheep that requires no shearing, is resistant to lice and flystrike and easy to handle while being kind on fencing sounds like a creation of modern breeding, however these exact traits are found in one of the oldest British sheep breeds in existence, the Wiltshire Horn.
Not too long ago, the Wiltshire Horn was listed as a rare breed and it was on discovering their plight that Suzanne and Bill Blumer, with daughter Sarah John, embarked on a mission to preserve its future.
The decision, made two decades ago when Bill retired from University of WA, resulted in the creation of Nardie Wiltshire Horn Stud. The stud started out as a flock of two ewes and a ram on the family's beautiful 61ha property in Gidgegannup.
Suzanne said the family had originally bought the property for Sarah's horses.
While horses continued to be part of their life, sheep breeding became their passion.
Their flock numbers soon jumped with the opportunity to buy 40 beautifully bred and registered sheep from John and Lindy Fischer who also lived in Gidgegannup.
Suzanne said the Fischers had intended to introduce Wiltshire Horns to rubber plantations in Sabah, Malaysia, where they had polo interests, until parenthood intervened.
"This flock of sheep were the descendents of the original flock imported into WA under the original stud name of Euroa, flock number 1, and taken to Victoria and registered as Bara-Simbil, flock number 2," she said.
Keeping sheep was not a new to Suzanne, whose family has a long history in WA agriculture.
"Many of my family are engaged in agriculture or have been employed in the WA Department of Agriculture," she said.
"My great-grandfather Charles Harper was born at Nardie, near Toodyay.
"He went on to encourage and promote advances in agriculture and, among other achievements started the Department of Agriculture and was its first director. He also started the Western Mail, the forerunner to Countryman, and the farmers' co-operative that became Wesfarmers."
Suzanne's early experiences with sheep were during school holidays.
"I spent my holidays riding around the flock looking for flystrike on my uncle's sheep station in north-west New South Wales," she said.
Showing has been an important part of Nardie Wiltshire Horn's development as a stud.
Suzanne said a background in showing horses made this a relatively easy activity to get involved with, and it had also proved to be a fantastic way to promote the Wiltshire Horn breed.
In the first 10 years of running the stud, the family was involved showing and attending as many field days as possible to lift awareness of the breed.
Sarah said the sheep stud now only attended its local event, the Gidgegannup Small Farm Field Day, and major shows.
The stud won the best of breed ribbon at the 2013 Perth Royal Show with a yearling ram, which competed with its brother, winner of the objective measurement class, for champion ram.
Both rams, with two more brothers, were sold to Nanga Brook-based Cypress Creek Stud which markets branded Wiltshire Horn meat.
Sarah said the stud sourced new bloodlines to improve carcase quality, while maintaining older bloodlines for genetic diversity.
"We also recognise the market value in polled animals and now produce several of these, although the flock focus remains the original horned breed. We sell our sheep to both small and large-scale farmers, with most rams sold to commercial breeders in the Wheatbelt looking to introduce shedding into their flocks," she said.
"Most stud ewes are sold to other breeders and wether lambs are sold to hobby blocks, vineyards and orchards for clean-up duties.
"It is amazing what kinds of fruit they learn to eat."
The stud uses a stringent culling process, resulting in retaining about 5 per cent of rams for stud and commercial sale and 5 per cent of ewes for flock replacement.
On average, the stud offers 10 rams a year for sale, most of which are sold as terminal sires.
A small number are sold to studs and others to small flocks producing lambs for home consumption.
Small ewe flocks are sold to the same small-farm breeders.
The stud's breeding flock is a tad more than 60 ewes, allowing Suzanne to manage the farm while Sarah finishes a PhD in agricultural science on robustness in adult ewes at Murdoch University.
Suzanne also managed the farm when Sarah and her husband moved to England for four years, during which time Sarah juggled looking after two small children and completing a Master's degree in meat science at Bristol University.
The easy management of Wiltshire Horn sheep made this possible. It is this ease of management that has seen the breed move from listed rare breed to increasing numbers over the past two decades.
"Wiltshire Horns don't need any shearing infrastructure and have minimal chemical requirements due to the fact that they are very rarely flystruck and do not get lice," Sarah said.
"Tailing is not necessary, ewes are fertile and usually produce sturdy, fast-growing twin lambs.
"They have hard black feet, and the black pigmentation of their eyes and nose prevents skin cancer."
Wiltshire Horn ewes are long lived, and can produce lambs up to 10 years of age.
Suzanne said Wiltshire Horns were the only true wool sheep that shed their fleece, which was a Downs-type wool.
"Shedding is an important focus for us and has been since we started the stud," she said.
"Wiltshire Horns shed their fleece over spring with the wool in the paddock being eaten by worms and used for bird's nests."
Sarah said there had not been a lot of research into the eating quality of Wiltshire Horn meat but anecdotal evidence pointed to the breed's fine palatability.
"The eating quality is brilliant and is proving popular in smaller niche markets, such as farmers' markets, and also in top-echelon restaurants such as (restaurant of the year 2013) Rockpool in Perth," she said.
The Wiltshire Horn was once the most numerous breed in Britain.
Suzanne said its foraging ability made it desirable to enclose at night on arable land for the manure, and it ranged the Downs by day.
"The industrialisation of farming with introduction of other fertilisers and the great wool boom spelt its doom, and only small flocks survived for the meat quality," she said. "It is now experiencing a resurgence in Britain as an easy-care meat breed."
While eating quality in terms of taste and texture is an important aspect of consumer support, Suzanne is also interested in the relationship between sustainable farming and human health.
This has resulted in considerable investment into soil health in recent years, as well as taking on new holistic management practices.
Sarah said two massive summer rainfall events in 2011 and 2012 led to erosion problems on the property, after which the family reconsidered their farm management style.
"We realised how degraded our beautiful farm had become and have now embarked on new management systems," she said.
"Our farm is run to minimise inputs and management interventions, starting by running an easy-care breed of sheep.
"Each year a paddock is fallowed and improved, if necessary, with mixed pastures and sometimes topped with a light oat crop, which we can wean lambs onto."
The family has added "browse bars" to paddocks during stock- free periods where tree lines have been ripped along fences and contour banks, and planted with species that will grow in Gidgegannup in the summer, providing fodder and fire resistance.
Suzanne said browse bars offered the sheep opportunities to self medicate with a wide variety of trees and shrubs, which grow with minimal water and that they have observed sheep like eating.
These plants include olive and carob trees, weeping tagasaste, rhagodia, grape vines, poplar trees, bushy natives, roses, and varied herbage such as rosemary and wormwood.
While Australia's sheep flock has continued to decline in recent years, both Sarah and Suzanne are optimistic about the future of the industry and the important role the Wiltshire Horn has to play.
"When we started breeding Wiltshire Horns we thought farmers would really like them," Suzanne said.
"They are a very easy sheep to manage and, in particular, are easily fenced."
Sarah said it was heart-breaking to see what was happening in some areas of WA where producers were exiting the sheep industry in favour of cropping.
"I don't think running a property as a monoculture is a sensible option," she said.
"Running sheep is quite a low-risk enterprise.
"Cropping alone can be a gamble depending on the season, whereas sheep are there all the time."
Sarah said she hoped work by the Sheep CRC and Murdoch into sheep breeding and management would help to reverse the tide of commercial farmers exiting the sheep industry.
"I hope more young farmers will be encouraged to be a part of Australia's future sheep industry," she said.
Suzanne said while she predicted some sheep meat production in Australia would come from feedlot situations, there would be a big drive from people wanting to be involved in food production and sustainability.
Suzanne and Sarah will be at the Gidgegannup Small Farm Field Day on Sunday, May 25, with nine-month-old lambs.
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