17 Jul 2020

Keeping the lustre alive

From Country Life, 9:14 pm on 17 July 2020
Fiona and John Robinson of Ravenswood English Leicester Stud

Fiona and John Robinson of Ravenswood English Leicester Stud Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

Despite the dire prices for wool, a couple in Kapiti are continuing a 130-year family tradition breeding sheep for their lustrous fleece.

Country Life producer Sally Round dropped in.

Ravenswood has a long history breeding the hardy English Leicester whose long curly wool has been likened to Bob Marley's dreadlocks.

Its genetics contributed to the New Zealand Halfbred and Corriedale so it's been a big player in the development of the country's sheep industry.

Ravenswood is New Zealand's oldest English Leicester stud, according to Fiona and John Robinson, who are continuing the family tradition and finding a niche market for their flock's lustrous wool.

Historic photo of prize-winning English Leicesters bred by Ravenswood

Historic photo of prize-winning English Leicesters bred by Ravenswood Photo: Supplied

While the market for wool overall is dire, feltmakers love their fleeces, John says.

At its height, Ravenswood, originally based in North Canterbury, was producing 1900 ewes and nearly 600 rams a year selling to farmers all over New Zealand who wanted to increase the wool weight of their flock.

The stud dates back to 1886 when John's great grandfather Joseph Taylor first farmed the English Leicester in Christchurch.

The Robinsons have had three lambings since they took over from John's parents and  moved some of the flock to the North Island in 2016.

The Ravenswood flock at Paekakariki Hill

The Ravenswood flock at Paekakariki Hill Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

They saw a future in the breed despite the marked decline in English Leicester sheep numbers over the past 25 years.

"They produce a different type of wool. It's long, lustrous, very strong," John says.

"It had a special characteristic that other coarse wool breeds don't have and they produce good lambs, (they're) very good mothers, very good grazing ability. They have a good temperament," he says.

John, who also works in the wool trade, sees glimmers of hope in the wool industry.

"I dont think farmers will switch to English Leicesters because the market signal is more to produce beefier lambs but there's definitely a niche for this product," he says.

Apart from felters, spinners also love their wool which John says they could sell three to four times over.

The couple would love to expand further.

"I look at the photos of the old English Leicesters that were going to ram sales and ... it would be nice to keep that family tie going and to be able to breed as good an English Leicester as what my great grandfather was doing in 1886."