One of the oldest breeds of sheep in New Zealand is proving a winner as farmers look to easier lambing and improved wool return.
The first Cheviot Sheep arrived in NZ in 1845 and the breed has remained an influence in the NZ sheep industry ever since. Now it is increasing in popularity, particularly for its hybrid vigour and hardiness.
Bred to thrive on the bleak Cheviot Hills in the border between England and Scotland, the Cheviot sheep is a hardy, low-maintenance sheep that is able to do well on hard country.
It has been tested on all sorts of country in NZ, on rich heavy land, very high cold places and moderately grassed pasture with tussocks and thrived without any artificial treatment.
This put them in the NZ Flock Book in 1895 ahead of the Merino.
The Cheviot Sheep Society was established in NZ in 1948 and currently has 24 members across the country with the breed’s resurgence coinciding with the society’s 75th anniversary.
The popularity of the Cheviot breed is increasing, especially as a terminal sire for their hardiness, easy lambing and rapid growth rate, and as a hogget sire for the increased lambing percentages achieved.
Society president Blair Gallagher said many flocks are now performance recorded with the production of the breed being continually improved.
The Cheviot of today still maintains all the qualities of yesterday and more as it is now a proven sire for hogget mating, with high lambing percentages and low mortality overall.
Gallagher said many people refer to the Cheviot as the Rolls-Royce of the sheep breeds for hogget mating.
“The lambs are small, vigorous, produce a good carcase and help reduce the incidence of prolapse in the ewe hoggets.”
In the North Island most lambs are sold as two-tooths but in the South Island a lot more ram lambs are used.
Last year Gallagher’s Rangiatea Cheviot Stud sold 35 two-tooths and about 80-90 ram lambs.
“Cheviots are increasingly crossed over terminal ewes, principally Beltex Southdown and Suffolk, and these crosses are very popular now but in their background the Romney, Perendale and Coopworth have been well used.”
Springvale breeder Stephen Whittaker of Fairlie is a longtime member of the society and a firm believer in the breed, more recently noting increased interest from hill and high country farmers for use over the Merino.
He said the Cheviot has “been proven to be a consistent performer producing even runs of lambs that are eagerly sought after for both finishing and prime stock”.
Whittaker was first introduced to the Cheviot in his first year home from school for the holidays.
“The old man had been tearing his hair out with the Romneys: stuck lambs, bearings out, they would see you coming, lie down and wait for you.”
He went to the Cheviot.
“I came home from the holidays and was told to look after the two-tooths – Romney-Cheviot cross. I thought bloody hell, but I had the easiest lambing.
“While trends have swapped and changed over the years, the Cheviot is still available, offering huge potential to sheep farmers,” Whittaker said.
Joe Harrison of Lochaber Station in South Canterbury swears by the Cheviot.
“My Merino two-tooths traditionally never went to the ram but looking at what to do with them to make more money out of them I read an article about using Cheviot over the two-tooths.”
Harrison, who runs a 3000-ewe breeding flock, tried it and was very quickly sold on it.
“It was a proven sustainable breed, renowned for its vigorous lambs and hardiness. The ewes are hardy, good foragers, offer easy lambing, and they are smart.
“I was getting better lambing percentage from the two-tooths than the terminal ewes. I stopped using the South Suffolk at all this year, even over the older ewes.
“Why struggle trying differing breeds when one pure is available and proven?
“The main thing for me is I set stock, I don’t shepherd on the hill. They are smaller lambs so I don’t have stuck lambs and they don’t kill my ewes, but man the Cheviot lambs hit the ground running.
“It’s taken me 10 years to get to this and there’s no going back now.”
Harrison buys his rams from Whittaker and sells his lambs as stores to neighbour Hamish Orbell on Calyton Station, who wants them at 25kg liveweight.
“The opportunity came about to change my breed type form Romney-Texel to half-bred and quarter-bred mainly because I was sick of shearing sheep for nothing,” Orbell said.
“I had done all I could in terms of fertility and constitution but one thing I couldn’t change was the wool.
“We also want long-term lambs, historically it’s just fat lambs for us, low cost, low maintenance, good finish ability all gone end of winter and we can get on with calving and deer work.
“These [Cheviot] lambs are low cost to finish, I can cart them through the winter relatively cheaply, make money – shear $30 of them with the Cheviot giving me a 21-micron clip average, then kill them at premium.
“It works for us, we put in a summer rape crop, depending on the season. If we don’t need it, I can buy in lambs.”
Orbell runs 5500 ewes. This year he traded 6000 lambs with 2500 over winter including all the Cheviot-Merinos.
The mothering ability, ease of lambing and milking ability of the ewes are all qualities that pass on to their offspring.
For Sam Saunders on summer dry hill country at Te Wharau near Masterton, the Cheviot stands a cut above the rest.
Previously a shearer and 41 years a sheep farmer, Saunders knows his sheep, what works where and what makes the best money.
“The wool on the Romneys and the Perendales was getting too coarse. To fine it up and make a little bit more money I needed to change.
“The first year all Cheviot, I haven’t shorn the hoggets yet, but the Cheviot wool will make the difference when I sell the wool this season.”
As for the lambs?
“They are smart, mustering they see an open gate and they are gone; they are very clever sheep. It does make you tidy up your fences as they will jump or go through them.
“I lambed just one sheep this year so anything with less input the better.
“We have been using Cheviots for six years and we like them, the handling ability, low maintenance and better wool cheque. You can’t complain,” Saunders said.