English leicester 'heritage' sheep breed ready for a comeback
The New Zealand English Leicester Breed Society has just held it's yearly field day.
Eighteen people attended, most of whom were from the South Island - not a big group by any stretch of the imagination. But the members made up for this with their unparalleled dedication to the english leicester breed, says the society chairman David Bennett.
Bennett hosted the group on his 360 hectare sheep, cropping and dairy grazing farm east of Ashburton, just two kilometres from the coast.
After lunch, the group visited the Ashford handicrafts factory. This was well received by the members, Bennett says, and quite an eye opener to see the ways in which the breeds fleece could be incorporated into spinning and dyeing.
"There are only 12 english leicester studs left in New Zealand," Bennett says. "There has been a slow steady decline."
The english leicester was a pioneer breed in New Zealand, well suited to wetter merino regions and the rough grazing of the North Island hill country, where merinos had been tried and found unsuitable, Bennett says.
It was among the earliest sheep imports to New Zealand and used extensively as a crossing sire to develop sheep best suited to New Zealand conditions.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the english leicester became established as New Zealand's third most common breed.
Flocks began to decline from the early 1900s although the breed was still crossed with merinos to produce the halfbred, Bennett says.
Don Reid of Darfield remembers back to when his family's english leicester Riversleigh stud sold 150 rams in one year.
"I remember one truckload of 78 rams that went out at one time."
Reid is the last member of three generations to run an english leicester stud first recorded in 1895.
His grandfather Robert Reid and great uncle founded the flock in 1893 with five ewes from Threlkeld. The stud flock was taken over by his father, another Robert, with Reid carrying it on from 1979 to 1990 at the family farm before moving to another Darfield farm.
"English leicester was highly valued back then for its strong wool for carpet making and its ability to raise a good lamb," Reid says.
He dispersed his flock in small lots so the parting wasn't too difficult.
"It was hard to let them go but I still have the memories."
Bennett does not have an annual ram sale - he hasn't been too successful selling rams over the past few years but still loves the sheep.
"We are finding more use for the wool in handicrafts and are trying to target the handcraft market. Ashford's buy some but it is quite limited. They like the "curls" -that's short, curly individual staples - that are incorporated into a garment.
"English leicester wool is also popular for [handicraft] blending with other wools.
"Because there is not very much purebred english leicester around it is hard to supply enough wool for substantial use. We can't do five bales a week, for instance. This is a limiting factor."
The breed has a fantastic fleece if the sheep are well fed, Bennett says. A lovely crimp and strong staple with varying degrees of lustre. The wool is strong and easy handling.
Furthermore, english leicester lambs will fatten and finish and they grow so much wool, he says. They take a little bit longer maturing because they grow a lot of wool as well.
"But if you have feed through the summer and into the autumn you can get a lamb with wool six centimetres long and fatten that lamb in the autumn to just as good a weight as any other lamb.
"You are really trying to get them into the best carcass range; you are letting them develop and culling them at a time when its best to reduce them. We can easily get them to 20 kilograms."
"If you had a mob of half english leicester ewes with a prime sire with them, a meat breed sire, they would do well.
"With the purebred lambs - it's difficult because we are not selling them for that. We are culling on the wool and not really targeting carcass weight."
Bennett's ewe lambs are bigger than one would normally kill lambs at because he wants to get the wool off them, he says. That's what happens with stud breeding.
The milking ability is the other strong attribute of the english leicester, Bennett says. They feed their lambs well and are good mothers. They have a good temperament. They are also dark footed and have few problems with footrot.
"Back when my father had them he sold to the North Island and they were crossed with the romney which at the time was shortish and had a lot of wool, whereas the english leicester had a clear head and legs. It made the romney more mobile and better on the hill. The romney has been much improved by this cross breeding."
The premium or ideal use for the english leicester is to cross it with a merino to produce a halfbred ewe, Bennett says.
The breed is still used by high country farmers for this purpose but in much fewer numbers.
Ben Todhunter's Cleardale station on the south side of Rakaia River has both an english leicester and a merino stud and he has identified the halfbred from these studs as the most profitable use for his foothills property.
While other farmers use border leicester or lincoln rams over merino ewes to create the dual-purpose halfbred, Todhunter prefers to use english leicesters which he believes are hardier.
"They're [the halfbred] the breed we currently think we can make the most money from," he says. "They're a really good sheep and their wool's worth a bit more and you can get some customers for that wool now.
"We've probably got one of the largest english leicester studs in the world, they're a bit of a rare breed."
"We've benchmarked the performance of those halfbreds against other halfbreds and against crossbred sheep and we think we're as well off financially, if not better, by getting high performance from fine-wool sheep here than we are from running a crossbred system or a straight merino system."
Todhunter's family has had sheep studs since the 1920s and he's keen to carry on the tradition. He's more of a believer in what the figures tell him than how an animal may look to the eye.
"I think with the genetics nowadays, there's more and more with the data we can get on them. It used to be 80 per cent feeding and 20 per cent breeding. It's probably become a little more breeding than feeding now."
Michael Costello of Masons Flat, North Canterbury, has the largest flock of commercial english leicester ewes in the country at about 3000 head.
He began his english leicester stud in 2000.
"The number of breeders was declining and the writing was on the wall," he says. " So we made the decision to buy a stud."
"Our type of country is heavier," he says. "If it's heavier you have to go to a crossbred type of sheep because the wool you are producing is stronger. We can't go to a finer bred sheep on the sort of country we farm on.
"A positive attribute of the english leicester is that they stand up in wet conditions. The have better bone structure in the leg. Really, you are looking at both ends of the stick. A reasonable lambing and a decent fleece of wool, which is what the english leicester provides.
"We are always bringing in outside bloodlines in the rams. We started off with about 80 stud ewes and in the last couple of years have dropped back a bit on the numbers because there isn't much point in breeding rams if you aren't going to sell them.
"I don't sell rams, don't even try. The biggest problem with producing english leicester rams is that you can't guarantee you will ever get a sale."
Bennett is about to shear the ewe lambs and some of the two-tooth ewes with eight months of wool on them. He has the two-tooths in the yard ready for shearing the following day.
"I think they will do so much better through the winter with the wool off," he says.
The english leicester is a heritage breed, he says, as he casts his eye over the ewes.
"That means the breed is old and almost on the way out but I don't feel this is quite the case here."
The challenge for the 12 remaining breeders is to improve the breeds' marketing and promote its assets with younger people to increase the breeding base, he says.
"It's sad there are few flocks remaining in New Zealand and they are worth retaining as they are part of New Zealand's sheep heritage.
"I think the english leicester breed is still relevant but not on a big scale. The people who are crossing the english leicester with merino ewes will say that they prefer this cross to the romney merino or a lincoln merino. They prefer the wool.
"We want to keep the breed running and we don't want to see it slip away because it served its purpose at the time and could easily come back as long as the breeders do the right thing."