Brian Hales and his exotic sheep. PHOTO/CHRISTINE MCKAY
They come in all shapes and sizes at Brian Hale’s Wimbledon farm.
On Sunday the fifth-generation farmer and former school teacher opened his farm for the public to see his collection of exotic sheep breeds.
For the past 16 years he’s grown his collection of exotic sheep and now has about 300 sheep on his family farm just north of Pongaroa.
Of the 18 breeds some come from as far away as Uzbekistan, Egypt, Wales and Spain, and in all sorts of colours and textures.
Hales first started with Karakul sheep from central Asia after his brother travelled to Kazakhstan as a wool scour where they are the dominant breed.
“He found great value in their wool.
“They’re desert sheep – the nomads of the desert rely on them entirely to meet all their needs.”
From there his collection grew.
“I reached a point where I realised there was a different thing to explore, having owned the karakuls.”
He now has more than 18 breeds including, feral New Zealand breeds such as the Pitt Island, Mohaka sheep, Arapawa Island, Herbert and Stewart Island sheep, as well as exotic Karakul, Assif, Gotland pelt, East Friesian, Awassi, German Marsh, Jacob, Black Romney, Dorper, Damara, Meatmaster, and historic breeds like the English Leicester and Lincoln.
Each of Hales’ breeds highlight the many uses and varied characteristics of sheep.
From milking breeds such as the East Friesian and Awassi, to meat producing breeds such as the South-African Dorper.
“They’re the heaviest meat producers per hectare of any other sheep. They don’t produce any wool – they shed their wool which has limited value,” he said.
“The ‘dor’ comes from crossing with a Dorset, and the ‘per’ comes from the Persian Blackface.”
More recently Dorpers have been crossed with the Egyptian Damara breed to create the popular new Meatmaster breed, referred to as ‘white gold’ in Australia.
“It’s only six years old but it’s rivalling the beef market in Asia in the restaurant business – they have the wagyu meat factor.”
Hale’s collection of sheep breeds also tells a story about the history of wool production, its rise and fall.
“I’ve seen the prices of wool soar upwards and downwards, likewise with meat.”
While more modern breeds cater to niche specialities, pre-industrial breeds were more multipurpose, providing a range of wool types as well as good eating.
“Pre-industrial sheep had to have fleeces with multiple uses – you find some wool to make a jersey, or a piece of wool to stuff a pillow, or something to felt to make some slippers.
“Unlike Romney which from sneezer to breezer have to be able to produce wool for carpet.”
Historic breeds such as the English Leicester and Lincoln are a reminder of early New Zealand breeds and of a time when wool prices soared.
But it’s the Gotland and Arapawa Island sheep which interest Hales now as their wool is very well suited for yarn making and spinning.
Arapawa Island wool is especially well suited for those looking for hypoallergenic materials and has a very low “itch factor” due to the spiral nature of the fibre.
“I realised the great potential of their wool. They have all the qualities that craft people require.”
Though well suited to the cottage crafting industry, he said he was yet to find the breed to revolutionise wool production or take it back to the heydays of the 1980s.
“In farming the exotics, I don’t see anything there that is an economic boom sheep at the moment.
“The only contact I have [with people interested in the wool potential] is with the cottage industry.”
It’s also about conservation for Hales and protecting the future of rare breeds.
“I feel it’s so important we keep breeds unique – they’ve got to be pure and we can’t start crossing.”
He counts his original karakul – he has about 20 of 50 in the country – and the recently rescued Stewart Island sheep as his rarest breeds.
“We rescued those from six and they’re an absolutely beautiful looking sheep. They were certainly endangered.”
Feral New Zealand breeds, such as the Stewart Island sheep, must have lived in isolation for over 100 years before they can be declared a new breed.
Many were deliberately set loose on surrounding islands during the 1800s as a food source for possible castaways and shipwreck survivors.
Hales has about seven of thirteen recognized feral breeds but said he still wants more.
“I’m a bit like a stamp collector. I’ve got to get them all.”
He had his eyes on the Campbell Island and Raglan sheep breeds.
It had been a good year and he was looking forward to the open day this weekend.
“It has been an excellent winter, spring and early summer for the sheep,” he said. “Plenty of rain means plenty of grass and water. They are looking great.”