This article was one of the most popular articles on farmersweekly.co.nz in 2023.
Since arriving on NZ’s shores in the early 1970s, the self-shedding Wiltshire flock has remained relatively small compared with other breeds – that is, until recently.
Breeder Will Morrison said he’s seen demand skyrocket.
At a dispersal sale in Hawke’s Bay at the beginning of this year, for example, some pens of Wiltshire 2-tooth ewes went for as much as $530 per head.
Morrison’s family has been farming Wiltshire sheep since the ’80s, when his father John bought New Zealand’s three existing Wiltshire flocks and aggregated them on the family’s now sixth-generation Rangitikei sheep and beef farm, which Will now farms alongside his second cousin Graham.
He believes the latest surge can be credited to staffing issues and general discontent with the low price of strong wool for such a long period of time.
“Farmers are always really optimistic and they know how to weather boom and bust cycles, but with the price of wool being so poor for so long, people have just gotten sick of it,” Morrison said.
“Another thing has been staffing. What we’ve seen is with workload pressures it’s come to a tipping point where people have come to us and said, right we’re gonna have to change something in our system.”
Once farmers have transitioned part or all of their flock to Wiltshires, Morrison said, it has allowed them to reduce their shearing to once a year, and eventually through effective breeding programmes eliminate the need for shearing altogether in their Wiltshire flocks.
As well as this, maintenance around crutching, dagging and flystrike is lessened or eliminated, reducing a good chunk of the usual workload on farms.
Morrison said that although the rise in popularity since 2018 is exciting for the breed as whole, there has also been a downside.
“Their dramatic rise in popularity has seen a lot of compromises made, with regards to the quality of sheep being bought and sold, by both buyers and sellers,” he said.
“Wiltshires have been farmed by a big range of farmers including typical sheep and beef farmers, organic farmers, lifestylers and low/no input farms. All of these people now find themselves selling breeding rams and females.
“As a consequence, there is a massive range in the quality of Wiltshire sheep and a massive range in the presentation of Wiltshires for sale. There are some fantastic Wiltshires being bought and sold, as well as some terrible ones.”
As well as this, terms like “100% shedding” are being thrown around, carrying the assumption or requirement for all Wiltshires to naturally lose all their wool – something that requires careful breeding from both breeders and commercial farmers post-purchase.
Despite this, Morrison believes Wiltshires and the range of alternative no-wool breeds will benefit hugely from the increase in performance recording that’s been seen. He said the sheep will make significant genetic gains in the next five to 10 years.
Someone who has been working hard to achieve these genetic gains is AgResearch’s sheep genomics team senior scientist Dr Tricia Johnson, who has been studying the breed for 17 years.
She said there is huge potential for the breed in the NZ farming landscape, but getting breeding programmes right is crucial.
“You actually need to be quite disciplined to come to a full shedding outcome. It’s absolutely possible, but you can’t expect a miracle overnight to get to full shedding and it is actually a little bit of a journey to get there.
“There is a really strong genetic basis to it, and the issue we are having in the industry is for breeders or commercial farmers in particular who are starting to incorporate shedding genetics is that it isn’t just a single gene.”
To ensure the shedding trait is consistent across the entire flock, Johnson said, it’s important to keep going back to Wiltshire rams for a period of time, or have a very dedicated cross-breeding programme that focuses on selection of the trait. It can take multiple generations before they are most of the way there, she said.
It’s also important to ensure the breeder is making good genetic progress with their Wiltshires, as well as considering that the other fundamentals of a good sheep are there, something she said is often overlooked.
“One of the things we also have to think about is that it is wonderful to have shedding, but you still have to have the underlying productive capacity to ideally have twins, good milking, be able to wean good lambs and everything else.
“Also, in the upper North Island we also have a relatively limited number of Wiltshire breeders at the moment doing the RamGuard programme, breeding for facial eczema tolerance.
“Commercial farmers just need to make sure that they’re actually still thinking about the other traits that are important to their system as they start to think about these Wiltshires.”
A strong-wool sheep farmer herself alongside her husband in Otago, Johnson is confident that strong-wool breeds will always have their stronghold in the industry, but said the no-wool breeds will serve an important role in the future of sheep farming in NZ.
She is heavily involved with the new Sheep of the Future initiative launched this year by Pāmu’s Focus Genetics, with funding from the Ministry for Primary Industries.
“The basis of that initiative is that we’ve identified that we have our current strong-wool market in NZ, and that’s going to be the mainstay of what some commercial farmers want. But there are other parts of the country where strong-wool animals are not the best option moving forward.
“And one of those areas, for example, could be Northland, where, if we think about climate change, they have been experiencing subtropical conditions that mean sheep have been displaced out of that region by beef cattle for a number of years.
“But if we can actually have the right genetics that suit that Northland environment, which includes thinking about things like heat tolerance, it might be that no-wool on its own is enough for them to have improved heat tolerance.”
“So it’s about recognising that in the future we need to maybe get some different specialised breeds for different parts of NZ.”