Wiltshire Sheep Breed History
The Wiltshire Horn is one of the world’s oldest surviving sheep breeds. Their origin is obscure but, unlike most sheep breeds, evolution has had little impact and they remain similar to the sheep which existed in England 2000 years ago. Today the breed survives in small numbers on farms in North Hampshire and surrounding Counties and in North Wales, particularly Anglesey. There are also small pure-bred populations in New Zealand and Australia.
In recent times the Wiltshire Horn’s value as a foundation crossing breed has been firmly established. They have adapted to a range of climatic conditions. Their fertility, size and unique skin, with its ability to annually shed the fleece, has enabled them to play a significant role in developing new breeds in Africa, South America and the Island Countries of the Pacific.
The Wiltshire Horn is a parent of some of the major Down breeds. These include: Oxford, Hampshire, Dorset and Dorper sheep. In Australia and New Zealand, progressive breeders have created a Polled Wiltshire strain. This has been achieved by crossing Wiltshire Horns with a polled breed, then back crossing the progeny to Wiltshire Horns for four generations, all the time maintaining the polled factor. In Australia this polled Wiltshire strain is called the Wiltipol. In NZ they are known as Wiltshires. The technique used to eliminate the horn gene is internationally accepted as the correct process to maintain the integrity of the pure Wiltshire Horn gene source.
The first Wiltshire Horns were imported into NZ in 1972. They were four polled ewes and a horned ram. Since 1984 the breed’s popularity has increased and as regulations have allowed, a few more have been imported. Importation has only been possible from Australia. Cost and availability has resulted in very low numbers coming to New Zealand. The majority have been rams used to strengthen existing gene pools.
In 1984 the Morrison family, from Marton in the North Island, gathered all the existing pure breeding females – some fifty mixed aged ewes and forty ewe lambs. They also imported a further three Wiltshire Horn ewes and the National Champion Wiltshire Horn ram from Australia. The following year John Morrison initiated the foundation of the Wiltshire Sheep Breeding Society. The formation of the Wiltshire Society coincided with the introduction of the T grade lamb and demand from the processing companies for a large, lean, lamb carcass. At that time, Wiltshires experienced a huge surge in popularity and flocks were established throughout the country by top crossing the Morrison’s Ardo rams with existing sheep populations. Although the resulting top-cross Wiltshires were not genetically pure, they quickly took on the appearance of the pure breed and were accepted as such by most.
Wiltshires in New Zealand (2009)
Whilst it is hard to accurately judge the present New Zealand Wiltshire ewe population, there is probably some two to four hundred pure Wiltshire Horns, three to five thousand pure Wiltshires (polled) and twenty to fifty thousand commercial Wiltshire and Wiltshire cross ewes.
The initial impetus for Wiltshires came as farmers tried to capture productivity by using a new, very fertile breed that produced a large fast growing carcass. Over the last twenty-five years, the growth in Wiltshire numbers has been tied to the fortunes of the wool industry. As the value of wool rises the numbers of Wiltshire ewes declines and when wool values fall Wiltshire numbers increase. This is a predictable scenario as Wiltshires have little or no wool. Financial analysis has show that there is always a financial advantage had by increasing weight of lambs reared, far ahead of increasing weight of wool grown.
Today there are three distinct farming groups using Wiltshire genetics.
- Organic farmers – Wiltshires are popular because of a greater tolerance to parasites (both external & internal) and for their easy-care attributes.
- Lifestyle farmers and Orchards – Wiltshires are the preferred sheep breed because they do not require shearing and do not have the health and wool harvesting costs of other New Zealand sheep breeds.
- Large corporate farms – Wiltshires have been used in a breed mix to improve the “bottom line” by reduce the costs associated with maintaining and harvesting wool. They have also helped where flocks were experiencing lambing difficulties and have become a popular hogget mating sire.
Wiltshires are extremely popular with small run holders because they don’t attract the same level of wool and animal health expenses as other sheep. Many of these lifestyle farmers have their own networks for trading livestock. Within this group, Wiltshire strains have been diluted by the infrequent infusion of other sheep.
There is a perception that Wiltshires are a Rare Breed. Numbers, and the presence of some large pure-bred flocks, mean that New Zealand Wiltshires are long past where they could be considered a threatened population.
The majority of New Zealand’s Wiltshires have descended from the Morrison Family’s Ardo flock. In 2009 Ardo has some two hundred Wiltshire Horn ewes and eight hundred pure Wiltshire ewes. The elite ewes are SIL (Sheep Improvement Limited) performance recorded. This recording assists to improve carcase, holds fertility and records the wool shedding characteristic that clearly identifies the breed. Within the Morrison’s Ardo flock, attention is also placed on maintaining a breeding programme that will keep inbreeding at its lowest level. It is acknowledged that pure Wiltshire’s narrow genetic pool contributes to a huge heterosis benefit when a Wiltshire or Wiltshire Horn is crossed with a sheep of another breed.
Wiltshire sheep are prolific. The NZ flock generally records a lambing percentage of better than 180% and in 1985 recorded 225%. Ewes lamb freely and are excellent mothers. The lambs display vitality at birth followed by rapid growth. Hoggets can be joined successfully.
Wiltshires appear to be resistant to both internal and external parasites. The incidence of fly strike, worms and lice is less than other breeds. They have long tails and do not require docking if that is your preference.
Adult rams weigh 120kgs, ewes 80kg. Average birth weight is 3.4kg.
Average lambing 190%.
Adult fleeces weigh 0.8kg to 1.5kg and are usually shed annually.