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Guide to Designer Sheep Breeds

There are now a wide variety of New Zealand Sheep Breeds where once there wasn’t much more than the traditional New Zealand Romney, Southdown and Merino strains. Now it is possible to dial up a new breed of sheep to suit any market need or farming situation. Even lifestyle block owners with just a small flock can experiment with any cross that takes their fancy, thanks to the wonders of artificial insemination.

Breeding History

The Romney dominated the New Zealand sheep industry for many years, accounting for 75% of the national flock at one point. The originally Romney Marsh UK breed went through considerable changes to become a distinct New Zealand breed, producing good carpet wool. Wool that is used for carpet is much coarser than the soft, fine wools that are usually used for clothing. Later the Drysdale breed was scientifically developed in the 1950’s by taking a Romney but giving it a dominant gene which stimulated production of long, non-crimping fibres. This made the wool even better for carpet wool production. That concept of designing a sheep breed to produce a certain quality of meat or wool has become very commonplace.

Main Breeds

The main NZ breeds are dual purpose breeds (meat and wool) and have the following characteristics:

Romney as mentioned above, the NZ Romney descended from the English Romney Marsh breed, which was first introduced to New Zealand in 1853. Originally the sheep were farmed in the lower-lying land regions that were cultivated by the first settlers. When later arrivals began to break in steep, hilly land for farms, they found the Romney suited those conditions rather well. As the breed adapted over the years to their new surroundings, their wool improved, making it the ideal wool for carpet. The Romney were then crossbred with other breeds to give different wools. They are now farmed almost everywhere, being of a medium size, with average fertility of 90% to 140%.

Drysdale – commercially developed in the 1950’s the Drysdale is a result of scientific research. Essentially, the breed is a Romney carrying a powerful gene which stimulates production of long, highly-medullated (non-crimpy) fibres. A dual purpose animal, the Drysdale produces good quality meat and wool. The biggest benefit of the Drysdale breed is easy care lambing. The ewes are excellent mothers and have a good temperament. A 25mm wool cover at birth ensures a high lamb survival rate. Fleece weights average about 5-7 kilos, or about one kilo more than most crossbreds. Drysdale wool is known for its whiteness which gives vibrant colours when dyed. The Drysdale wool fibre has an average of 41 microns and is ideal for carpet manufacture. Noted for its crisp hand, Drysdale wool is ideal for blending with Romney wool when a hard or crisp hand is required. The Drysdale has an average lambing percentage of over 115%.

Perendale – this breed was developed by Massey University by crossing Romney with the Cheviot breed. It is small to medium in size with medium fertility of 100% to 150%. It has medium to strong bulky wool and produces finer wool than most wool from cross-bred sheep. This combination gives the wool amazing spring-back which means that carpets retain their bounce and bulk longer. The Perendale is often blended with Romney wool when this characteristic is to be further enhanced. The Perendale breed accounts for 10-15% of New Zealand sheep population.

Coopworth – this breed is another one based on Romney and was developed back in the 1960’s by crossing Border Leicester with Romney. The Coopworth produces a lustrous fleece, noted for its good staple length, clean colour and good spinning qualities. It is medium to large size with easy lambing characteristics and good fertility of 110% to 160%. This desirable mix has seen the Coopworth become the second most popular breed in New Zealand.

Border Leicester – the original breed arrived in New Zealand in 1859, and later was used as a crossing sire to produce heavier lambs for Romney, Corriedale and Merino ewes. The Border Leicester also contributes high fertility and good mothering qualities to these crossbred strains. The lambs are large and lean with rapid growth rates. The Border Leicester has also been used to develop New Zealand’s Coopworth (a Border-Romney cross) as well as the Borderdale (Border-Corriedale cross); a large strong-woolled breed, used mainly on plains in the South Island. The Border Leicester has good fertility of 120% to 160%. It has long, lustrous wool with the individual staples being easily separated. It is used to make carpet yarns both hand-knotted and machine-made.

Merino – most famous as the sheep of the Australian outback, the Merino is very popular in the South Island and dry regions of the North Island. It is a small to medium sheep known for its very fine wool. Because of that, it is often used to fine up coarser-woolled sheep. The quality of the wool makes it ideal for making woolskins for floor rugs and car seat covers and a large proportion of the skins are used by tanneries, both here and in China.

Texel – this breed originated on the Texel Island, near Holland and are the leading sheep breed in Europe. Texels were first introduced into New Zealand in 1991. They are known for being hardy and can survive the most fierce winter conditions. They are a medium-sized but very muscular sheep, with big hind quarters. Texels are good mothers and always stay close to their lambs. Their wool is a clean, white colour with good bulk. It is particularly suitable for the top-quality carpet market. Texel are often used to improve muscling in other breeds as their meat is lean, tender and fine-grained.

East Friesian – although this is quite a new breed in NZ, it has been long established in northern Germany and Holland as a milking breed. They originated in the Friesland/Ost (East) Friesland, from where they gained their name. They have gained rapid acceptance in NZ mainly because of their milking ability and they are often used as a crossbred to improve milking ability. Their breeders believe that the East Friesian will also provide the basis for establishment of a sheep milking industry producing fetta cheese and other sheep-milk products. They are the most productive milking sheep breed in the world, producing 500-600 litres per 210 to 230 day lactation. Friesians are a large sheep with very good lamb growth rates and producing very lean carcases. The wool is bulky, white and medium¢â‚¬œcoarse (approx 35-37 microns). They have a huge fertility rate of up to 280% in mature ewes.


Finn (Finnish Landrace) – the Finn is an ancient breed originating in Finland. The short-tailed Landrace breed are common in Europe. They are a medium-sized sheep that proved too fertile as a separate breed but are an excellent cross to improve lambing percentage in low fertility breeds such as the Romney. NZ Finn is the only breed available where the fertility genes are stable and major increases in lamb production can be achieved in first cross animals. The fecundity of Finns is a genetic trait maintained in most European short-tailed sheep, and is basically a response to feed input. The Finn has a fertility of 260%, an amazing rate that is as high as any breed in the world. Finns have very good mothering abilities and are highly resistant to facial eczema, although that resistance disappears in the crossbred progeny. NZ Finn sheep have a long, lean carcase and this tendency is passed onto crossbred lambs. Being fine-woolled, Finns may eventually become recognised as a useful dual-purpose breed. The wool is around 25-30 microns with a high lustre.