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Pitt Island Sheep (rare breed)

Pitt Island sheep are otherwise known as Spanish or Saxony merino sheep. These sheep are descendants of animals imported into New Zealand by Samuel Marsden on his ship the ‘Active’ sometime between 1814 and 1837. Marsden was the instigator, along with John McArthur, of the Australasian wool industry, and this year [1997] marks the bicentennial of that event, for in 1797 progeny in South Africa of a small flock presented to the Government of the Netherlands by the King of Spain in 1789 and sent to South Africa, were brought into Australia by him. The Spanish Merinos had been jealously guarded by Spain for centuries because of its fine wool, and survived through the upheavals of war and famine. They are related to the even more ancestral Mouflon from the mountainous regions of Corsica and Sardinia. As a feral sheep, having been wild on Pitt Island at the Chatham Islands since 1843, they hold a wealth of genetic treasure. Today the original pair have become 50 and live on a farm at Albany. The old ram is still alive but unthroned, while the old ewe still produces her yearly twins. [Both have now passed on to the heavenly paddock- 2008].


A pair of the sheep were kindly given to me prior to leaving Pitt Island some time in the 1980’s by a run holder there, whose dogs had baled them up near some cliffs. After emptying them in a woolshed overnight, I took them down to a fishing vessel and put them aboard for the one hour crossing to the main island, where they were craned up onto the wharf and onto a truck. A half-hour journey to Te One saw myself and others enjoying a cuppa at the pilots house before leaving for NZ. We loaded the twin-engined Cessna Queenair up with boxes of frozen Paua and live crayfish, and the sheep were accomodated in bins. We crawled through the cargo to the cockpit and taxied back up to the take-off point. Beyond the rolling bracken country is the lagoon - stretching away into the haze. Flounder can be easily caught by hand here, and swan-egging is bountiful. We flew a great circle route the 800 kilometres to Wellington, enjoying spectacular wave-form cloud as we approached NZ.  Here a fish company truck met us and the driver generously gave myself and the sheep a ride into the city in the freezer.


Both the Airlines and the Railways baulked at taking the sheep to Auckland, so I hired a rental car and, anxious to feed and water them, took off promptly. I gave the sheep some grass and water outside Wellington before carrying on. Going up through the Manawatu Gorge, the ram, who’s horns were well developed, got loose and decided to join me in the passenger seat and so enjoy also the fleeting glimpses of the North Island in the faint moonlight near midnight. I had a good idea he was oblivious to the damage he could cause both the car and myself, and so I grabbed his right-hand horn. He of course objected, and some struggle took place. It was not a good place to stop the car, what with laden truck and trailer units coming through the gorge frequently. At Turangi, I stopped past mid-night at a petrol station and asked the attendant if he would keep an eye on the sheep (tethered to the outside of the car) while I had a restorative nap. In the early dawn I continued on and eventually got to suburban Auckland, where I returned the car undamaged but smelling a bit agricultural. The only unmown grass was on the roadside, so I tethered them there, prompting an anonymous complaint and a visit by two interested Council workers. After living temporarily at an animal park with lions and emus and donkeys, I brought them to Great Barrier Island, where they soon escaped. The ewe was not quite so much trouble to recapture as the ram, although both ran up and down Rosalie Bay Road a couple of times and then some, until I thought I’d spit my lungs out in fact.

After the ewe was recaptured, the ram went down to Mulberry Grove beach, and then around the rocks past Miller’s Point. He saw eventually that unless he swam for it he was a goner as by now I had help and he was trapped. (Forward- planning is not their strongpoint). When he got to around a hundred metres out to sea and was sucking air in an excited navigationally-challenged state, I became concerned that things had got out of hand, and was about to swim out and rescue him when he threw in the towel and swam back to shore. Exhausted and with a fleeceful of water he was welcomed back. I took it home on the tank of my motorbike, and later to Auckland, where his family lives to this day, by a lake and a stone house, in quiet peaceful surroundings. They are survivors.

The sheep have clear black legs and faces, and long very fine brown wool that will moult. The rams come well-equipped with large rolling horns, while a minority of the ewes have weaponry much like a Saanen nanny goat, thin lightly curved stiletto shaped horns. The lambs, which cannot be run down within a week of birth, are born predominantly black, but some with patches of white may show up, while others may be a ginger or coffee colour. By the time they are hoggets however, their normal colour predominates, and of course the tails are left on. In the wild, lambing can occur from April to November, and at times the young rams form separate bachelor herds. Twinning is normal. The meat is lean, and the fine wool excellent for spinning. Using them to cross-breed can produce a superior fine fibre.


The Spanish Merino is related to the Arapawa and Hokonui feral sheep, as they also derive from the voyage(s) of the brigantine ‘Active’. Marsden operated a farm near Wellington, and a Wellington-based trader put a flock of 50 on South-East Island (a couple of miles off Pitt where the Black Robins now thrive) and sold them shortly after in 1842 or 3 (when there were around 300), to the first European on Pitt, Frederick Hunt, who used them to supply whaling ships and sell the wool. (When the whaling finished, Pitt Island didn’t see a sail for seven years). The breed quickly returned to their wild state, eating out all the young Nikau seedlings, a species that the Chatham Island Wood Pigeon possibly depended on, with the result today that outside and inside the reserves, there remain only old Nikaus (different to the NZ types) that are quickly dying out, and there are no pigeons now on Pitt, while I think the pigeons on the main Chatham Island are only just recovering from their low point of 50 birds. (A bigger bird than we see here). Originally they were all white. In the 1940s, a black sheep was a rarity. Half were black by 1960 and by 1997 90% of the flock was solid black at the skin, with brown fleeces.



Don Armitage ©

August 1997
Dr Michael Ryder, whose article 'Samuel Marsden: Australian Pioneer' (In 'History Today' journal, Vol.XXIII-No.12-Dec 1973pp864-870) I relied on for historical background, was a long-standing expert scientist at the Wool Research Association in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also wrote the encyclopaedic "Sheep and Man" of 800+ pages, published by Duckworth in 1983.
Recently, I have found a letter in the Alexander Turnbull Library, of a John Betts calling in to Great Barrier Island in the 1840s. John Betts was Samuel Marsden's son-in-law.
Last updated 7th September, 2008. Don Armitage .