Captain James Cook introduced the first sheep onto New Zealand pastures in 1773 at Ship’s Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound. Since then, they have adapted and been selected to achieve a level of production that no other pasture-based country can match.

Part of that genetic improvement has been accelerated by the introduction of new breeds – the East Friesian’s milkiness, the Finn sheep’s fertility, the Texel’s carcase quality, and the Dorper’s lack of dags. Each time, rams and ewes that most obviously express that trait fetch high prices until a new flavour becomes popular.

I usually try to shy away from controversy but this time I’m going to dive right in. When these popular breeds are at the top of their bubble, there must be a temptation for breeders to sell anything they can to capitalise on this popularity. In many cases this is to the detriment of that breed and to the farmer’s base stock. In other words, have you ever seen a Dorper with good feet?

Recent bubbles have seen high prices for the Beltex with their extra muscling, the Wiltshires with their low shearing costs, and the Black Nose Valais for looking cute on Instagram. With some exceptions, many of the animals I’ve seen on commercial farms are poor examples of their breed. Some make you wonder how they got sold at all. One of the worst examples I experienced was when I was palpating rams for brucellosis on a farm and yelled out, “hey, you’ve put a cryptorchid in here by mistake!” The farmer said, “he can’t be a crypto, I paid $5000 for him!”

“A ram on three legs isn’t a profitable investment even if he’s not a maternal breed.”

I know not everyone cares as much about lame rams as I do (hey, everyone is allowed their pet peeves), but lameness is a significant health and welfare issue. A ram on three legs isn’t a profitable investment even if he’s not a maternal breed – they need to walk in order to mate. Of course, plenty of traditional breeds have feet issues too. There’s a simple and easy solution to this problem: don’t breed from them.

I’m not saying we should stick to traditional breeds. Over time, these new breeds will change and adapt to our environment and may make your flock even more sustainable and productive. In 10 or 20 years we can look forward to fast-growing, high-yielding lambs from ewes that have twins every year and never need shearing (North Island), or have a profitable fine micron wool clip (South Island). My plea to breeders is don’t sell a ram that isn’t a good example of his breed, and don’t sell a ram who can’t walk.

If you are a ram buyer, please, before you buy a ram, feel his balls (there should be two of them and they should be nice and big), and look at his feet (there should be four of them, and he should be able to walk). If you’re really keen, have a quick squiz at his teeth, and make sure he’s got whatever quality you’re looking to introduce to your flock. It’s worth thinking about this seriously. A bad buy in a terminal ram will cost you money in the short term; a bad buy in a maternal ram will influence your ewe flock for years. Spending good money on a ram that isn’t physically capable of passing on his genetics is a waste of money and time. Honestly, nobody likes seeing limping rams – not you, not your vet, and not your ewes!

  • Sara Sutherland is a vet for Veterinary Services Wairarapa.