Neil’s in his mid-80s and still farming the unforgiving soil at Baringhup, to the north of Ballarat.
“When we have visitors and we have a roast they all say, ‘oh that’s the best roast we’ve ever had - it’s so sweet’, but it is.”
Neil’s family has had Shropshires since around 1860, when his grandfather bought 20 of the first ewes introduced to Australia from England.
Once in Australia, Shropshires took off, particularly in Tasmania. In the 1890s three ‘elite’ Shropshire breeders immigrated to Tasmania with their flocks.
The Shropshires had a big impact on the sheep meat industry. Before 1900 about 20,000 lamb carcasses left Australia each year. Ten years later there were several millions, and 70 per cent of them were sired by Shropshires.
The boom in popularity was unfortunately followed by a sharp drop after the First World War. It seems European housewives wanted smaller joints as they balanced their budgets, and the Shropshire was too big. Neil Neilson says he can also remember the Shropshire hides being unpopular because they had black skin around the head and legs.
There are now only about 10 registered flocks in Australia, and after many months of planning we have bought a little flock and reintroduced them to Tasmania.
We bought 27 ewes from the Neilsons, and we sourced a ram and another ewe from Fiona and Nicholas Chambers of Daylesford, Victoria. We carted the ram and single ewe home on our ute on the boat, and had so much pleasure telling the other passengers about our special cargo. A couple of months later a transport company brought over the rest of the flock.
Neil has been reminding us how important it is to keep the sheep pure, and cull the ones that aren’t up to standard.
“My dad always used to say to us, ‘if you want to keep something pure you’ve got a big job. You’ve only got to make one mistake and introduce one ram that’s not as good as it should be, and you start back to scratch again’.
“We’ve all been very careful with the Shrops and we’re proud of that.”
He says it’s hard to find pure flocks in Australia, and many have been crossed with other breeds. It will be a challenge for us to source rams of good type.
We feel a deep sense of responsibility now we’ve got the Shropshires. It’s raining at the moment, and the sheep are out in the paddock sheltering their young lambs. There are a couple of ewes still with bulging, low tummies waiting to give birth.
We have a responsibility both to the breed and the Neilsons. This is the first time they’ve sold a group of their ewes as a flock. It’s such a credit to them that they have kept their stud going for so long.
“They seem to have a better constitution than most sheep, and that’s really why we’ve stuck to them,” Neil says.
“They seem to be able to turn their tucker into fat and meat quicker than anything else.”
Listen to Neil tell the story of when he almost lost all his Shrops, and see the photos of our new lambs.