Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

End of an era for heritage sheep breeder

After 30 years of showing sheep, 88-year-old Ethel Stephenson has decided it's time to retire and may be exhibiting at her last Australian Sheep and Wool Show.

LIBBY PRICE July 8, 2014 11:05pm

88 year old Ethel Stephenson heads to the Australian Sheep and Wool Show with her prize English Leicester sheep


Ethel Stephenson admits she knew nothing about sheep when she first fell in love with them on a trip to New Zealand in the early 1980s.

When she and husband Peter retired to a small farm on the Mornington Peninsula soon after, Ethel decided to buy some sheep.

‘‘Do you mind if they’re black?’’ she asked.

At first Peter didn’t mind, but stock agents kept dropping off unwanted black sheep in their yards.

‘‘Peter decided he really wasn’t fond of the ‘motley’ lot. He wanted them to match the neighbours’ sheep,’’ Ethel said.

‘‘I was watching the judging at the Royal Melbourne Show and realised I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the black ones.

‘‘Then I met a couple with English Leicesters which had caught my eye. They had their entire flock for sale so I bought my first one, a ewe called E66.’’

And so began 30 years of showing and breeding English Leicesters, a heritage breed of sheep renown for their long, curly, strong wool.

But of course not just any sheep would do. Ethel had soon ordered the best ram she could find from New Zealand.

‘‘Bishop was the most beautiful animal, so quiet. He arrived with a big trailer load of racehorses!’’

Ethel became a dedicated ‘showie’ because she loved meeting all the sheep breeders and learning all she could.

‘‘I don’t count the champion ribbons,’’ she said.

‘‘I just congratulate the sheep and give them an extra feed.’’

The Stephensons eventually moved to their Ostlers Hill stud at Broken Creek which currently has 73 breeding ewes; this may not seem like many but there are only 424 English Leicester sheep registered in Australia.

‘‘The hardest thing is the small numbers (of sheep) and so few with the same micron. We can’t get even wool lines, so all the English Leicester clip from around the country is pooled and sold through WISS (Woolgrowers Independent Selling Services). We only get about $2/kg (compared to an average of $10/kg for Merino wool).

‘‘At a show someone said they weren’t making money out of this. Turns out, not one of us was. We just love preserving heritage breeds.’’

Compared with the finer-wool-producing Merino, the English Leicester has a quiet temperament and the ewes are great ‘mothers’. But with their dreadlock-style strong wool and heavy dense bones, they’re not an easy sheep to shear.

‘‘I do have a friend who does it specially for me,’’ Ethel said.

‘‘They’re just so big to handle.’’

At 88 years old, Ethel is planning for the future and has already sold the farm, and leases back enough land for her sheep. She thinks the Australian Sheep and Wool Show at Bendigo next week may well be her last.

‘‘The entire flock is on the market. I’ve started advertising the sheep now as I might need two years to find good homes for them.

‘‘I think at 90 (years) I’ll move into town. You have to be realistic. I’ve had 30 years of joy meeting people,’’ Ethel said.

‘‘It’s just been a wonderful life.’’

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