Katherine Henry runs the Rare Breed Project, first launched at the Australian Sheep & Wool Show (ASWS) at Bendigo, four years ago.
“It’s a project of passion; all I am doing is connecting people who use fibre with people who have rare breed sheep – I want to get people out of the ‘cult of the soft’,” Ms Henry said.
“I am trying to educate breeders. They are breeding these sheep, because they adore them, but don’t do much with the wool.”
She said her main goal was to point out the owners of rare breeds to spinners, weavers and wool workers.
“My goal is to point them to someone who has a flock of those, so they can buy the wool directly, so money goes to help them support their flock.”
All I am doing is connecting people who use fibre with people who have rare breed sheep – I want to get people out of the ‘cult of the soft’
She said she had to point out to one breeder that throwing away the black wool from her sheep was a mistake.
“It is exactly the black wool which will go for more money when you are working with hand spinners and fibre artists, because they are delighted with that.”
Another opening for rare sheep breeders was selling animals as lawn mowers.
“I encourage people to buy a rare breed sheep, which would otherwise need to be culled.
“They then have something to talk about, because they are supporting those rare breed sheep.”
She said there were many species of sheep in the world but only a small number of breeds were used commercially.
“The heritage breeds offer traits of not only long, lustrous or bouncy, crimpy fibre, but also commercially important traits like propensity to twin lambs, resistance to foot rot, ability to defend themselves and their offspring, and other traits that are being lost in more commercially available sheep.”
She said she had a small property in the Barrington Tops, northern New South Wales, and had asked about setting up a small flock there.
“I was told ‘it’s too wet,” but I said, have have you been to Scotland ? There’s a mindset you can’t put sheep there, because you can’t put Merinos there.”
Several important breeds were at risk of being lost, due to their small flock size, localisation and susceptibility to disease.
“Because of its remote nature and strong sheep heritage, Australia plays an important role ensuring these sheep are available for future generations,” she said.
Some breeds had died out, while others had only a handful of animals.
She said it was better to focus on the breeds already in Australia, than trying to bring out new ones. “I try to take people through the process of how much money it would cost to bring out enough animals, to keep the genetics going. We are better off keeping what we have got.
“It’s nearly impossible to get new genetics into Australia, which makes it even more important to keep the ones we have here.”
Certain breeds were good for orchardists, others were suited to wet conditions.
She said butchers, particularly in Melbourne, were also showing an interest in some of the heritage breeds
“What fabulous quality of meat they are,” Ms Henry said.
‘These are hardy breeds, for the most part, which are really good for the beginning sheep farmer.”
Fibre artists and hand spinners had shown a lot of interest in rare breed specific wools, for many years.
“They were ordering wool from England or America, but there is no reason for it to come all the way from there.”
The wools, which were a coarser micron, were used in socks, handbags and outerwear, such as sweaters, coats, hats, gloves and mittens.
Ms Henry said she also tried to educate the general public about rare breeds and their uses.