Rare sheep part of family heritage

THEY are one of the most distinctive looking sheep breeds and this weekend English Leicester enthusiasts from across the country will gather in Tasmania for a get together.

Breeders from NSW and Victoria are visiting the state for what has become a regular catch up event.

English Leicesters are an all-purpose breed that is best known for its long fleece.

While their commercial value these days is limited, English Leicesters are a heritage breed with a number of studs across the country including Tasmania, which has one stud with bloodlines dating back to 1851.

Across the country, there are about 500 registered English Leicester ewes.

Long-time breeder Brenton Heazlewood from the Melton Park stud said maintaining the English Leicester genetics was important.

“In essence they’re not of much economic significance to the sheep industry, except that like a lot of heritage breeds, the genetics they hold may be valuable one day,” he said.

The Heazlewood family has had an English Leicester stud on the property since 1871.

The breeders will visit studs in Tasmania as well as getting together for a dinner tonight.

Mr Heazlewood said the group will discuss breed standards as well as other aspects of the breed, including the limited genetics.

“We did this about three years ago and everyone had a good time so they wanted to do it again and come back to Tasmania,” he said.

Because of the limited number of purebred sheep in Australia, Mr Heazlewood said studs had to be careful making selections to avoid inbreeding.

“That’s something the breed is very conscious of,” he said.

“It’s something that all these heritage breeds with low numbers face, the lack of genetic diversity.”

While the breed is probably best known for its impressive lustrous fleeces, Mr Heazlewood said the developer of the breed, Robert Bakewell, had originally selected them for carcass qualities.

“It’s ironically really because when Bakewell developed the breed… he was more interested in meat,” he said.

“He wanted to feed the nation, not clothe the nation.” One of the traits he selected the sheep for was their ability

to lay down fat.
Mr Heazlewood said while

that trait is not sought after today, it was ideal in the mid-1700s when the breed was developed when labour- intensive work required energy-dense food.

“They will lay down the
fat, that’s a trait that has come through for the last 300 years.”

He said a placid nature was another trait bred into the sheep from the beginning.

Unlike some other heritage breeds, English Leicesters have not been modernised and studs aim to maintain the breed standards.

“We haven’t modernised the breed and I don’t think we will,” he said.

“My personal opinion is we shouldn’t modernise, because if you want a modern breed there are heaps to choose from. With these heritage breeds, I think we should keep them as they are because that’s their significance.”

He said they aimed to maintain the dual-purpose characteristics with a 50-50 emphasis on meat and wool.

Mr Heazlewood said a few new breeders had registered flocks around the country in the past year.

“There aren’t really any new breeders in Tasmania taking it up, but on the mainland we’ve had half a dozen come on board in the last 12 months.

“Not big numbers, but they have registered flocks which is good,” he said.