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Preserving a classic breed

Ethel Stephenson breeds old-fashioned sheep, but don’t call her an old sheep breeder.

CATHY WALKER December 31, 2013 4:03am

Ethel Stephenson


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Ethel Stephenson breeds old-fashioned sheep, but don’t call her an old sheep breeder.

Mrs Stephenson is passionate about her English Leicesters and proud that in the 30 or so years she’s been involved in preserving the Heritage breed they are still here, and still true to type.

The retired architect discovered Heritage sheep after a life of working in the city and established Ostler’s Hill stud at Broken Creek with her late husband Peter, also an architect.

‘‘I started absolutely ignorant of sheep after city life, but being an architect I was able to help with the display work when it came to promoting the breed,’’ she said.

Clearly Mrs Stevenson, 87, also learned the nuts and bolts of the job as she went along, as well as becoming an enthusiastic sheep and wool show competitor.

When Country News visited she was feeding out hay and bottle-feeding the last few lambs of the season that she described as the ‘‘top-ups’’— ewe and ram lambs that were from multiple births born from artificial insemination.

‘‘We had two sets of quads this year,’’ she said as she warned one fast drinker that at three months of age her bottle days were numbered.

At some point, the days of English Leicesters in Australia were also numbered but the work of a small group of enthusiasts has turned that around.

Heritage Sheep Australia represents the breeds that were the foundation of the country’s sheep and wool industry, with English Leicester and Lincoln being the two long wool breeds. The others are Cheviot, Southdown, Shropshire, Dorset Horn, Ryeland, Hampshire Down, Dorset Down and most recently added to the roster, Romney.

The English Leicester can be traced to 1826 in Australia and Mrs Stephenson said one of her fellow breeders had recently judged sheep in the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

‘‘He says ours are true to type — we are doing very well.’’

The long, glossy wool is soft handling and a favourite of craft artists.

‘‘The smell is divine,’’ Mrs Stephenson said as she showed off a fleece that had been individually wrapped in cloth for a customer.

‘‘The fleece is 30 microns and above but the micron number is affected by the climate the wool is produced in.’’

As in any niche businesses, interest in the wool is spread by the converted, in this case craft and wool fans, and Mrs Stephenson also sells some by advertisng in Grass Roots magazine.

But clearly this is a labour of love, and of history. Mrs Stephenson credits having the sheep — and her offsider, Kirsty Harker, to help her — for keeping active.

‘‘Even the vet wants to die and come back here as a sheep,’’ Mrs Stephenson said.

More information: www.englishleicester.org.au Heritage Sheep Australia, email Jacque Carr at carrs@netspace.net.au

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