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by Michael Trotter
Like most of our feral breeds of rare sheep, the origins and early history of those of Pitt Island are based on speculation as much as fact. It is likely, however, that they derived from Saxony Merinos that had been taken to South East Island – another island in the Chatham group – in 1841 by Baron von Alsdorf of the Hutt Valley, North Island, and their progeny were moved on to Pitt Island a few years later. In any case, the flock is known to have been in existence since the beginning of the twentieth century (Engst manuscripts, Canterbury Museum; Whitaker 1976).
In the mid-1970s it was stated that there were 2000-3000 feral sheep spread over 2500 hectares on the southern half of the island. In 1983 Dr Mike Rudge, who was a founder member of the Rare Breeds Conservation Society, reported that in “a most unusual step in a country in which conservation priorities generally hark back to a pristine age of flightless birds, ancient reptiles and rich rain forests” a scientific reserve of 200 hectares had been created for 305 of the sheep near Canister Cove and adjacent to the Southern Nature Reserve in 1981 (Rudge 1983b:211; 1983a:349). It was no surprise to learn, however, that within a few years the sheep had been “removed” as part of a change in management plan (Walls and Scheele 1995:12) .
Mike Rudge made a very useful study of the Pitt Island sheep in 1981. He found that 67% of the males and 71% of the females were black with no relieving marks, and that about 10% of each sex had small white marks, either on the top of the head or the tip of the tail. About 10% were all-white, less than 5% were moorit (brown), and about 7% had patches of white scattered over an otherwise black fleece. Horns were present in 97% of the males, but only 13% of the females had true horns, although 54% of females had scurs (miniature horns only loosely attached to the frontal bone). The horns of older rams were massive and formed complete spirals up to 95 centimetres long measured around the curve. (Rudge 1983a.) .
No account of Pitt Island sheep would be complete without mention of Canterbury entrepreneur Roger Beattie. Roger became impressed with the sheep when he was engaged in culling them on Pitt Island some years ago.
“Towards the end of the project, I began to think that these sheep were incredible.” he told Press journalist, Tim Cronshaw, in 2006. “The lambs were born almost running and they didn't get sore feet or wool blind. They were agile, they tasted great, and they didn’t seem to get dags. They were never drenched, were unaffected by ticks and lice, and were healthy year round.” He later shipped several lots to the South Island where they formed the nucleus of his present flock on Banks Peninsula, which now numbers 4000 (see photograph).
I’ve not owned Pitt Island sheep myself, but when I was photographing them – both the large Banks Peninsula mob, and the half-dozen in North Canterbury – they seemed to be far more wary of humans than other breeds I’ve dealt with, including Arapawas.
CHALMERS, Heather, 2005. Adding colour to farming community. Rural News, Auckland. 10 May 2005, page 31.
CRONSHAW, Tim, 2006. Trailblazer. The Press, Christchurch. 10 February 2008, page C10.
FINNIE, Sandra, 2008. Wool industry in crisis – what crisis? (page 9). Wild sheep selection mirrors nature (page 10). Straight Furrow, NZ Rural Press, Auckland. 26 February 2008.
RUDGE, M. R., 1983a. A reserve for feral sheep on Pitt Island, Chatham group, New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, Vol. 10, pages 349-364.
RUDGE, M. R., 1983b. A reserve for feral sheep on Pitt Island, New Zealand. The Ark, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, June 1983, pages 211-212.
WALLS, G., and SCHEELE, S., 1995. Collapse or recovery : Pitt Island vegetation 1980-1993, with reference to Chatham Island. Conservation Advisory Science Notes No. 120, Department of Conservation, Wellington.
WHITAKER, A. H., 1976. Feral Sheep in New Zealand. The Value of Feral Farm Animals in New Zealand, edited by A. H. Whitaker and M. R. Rudge, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington, pages 27-32.
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