Nothing like an original
The Wiltshire Horn may be descended from the breed brought to Britain by the Romans as the original British meat sheep. It has played a part in the origin of a number of other breeds. In the 18th century it may have been the most numerous sheep in Britain, with total numbers perhaps in the millions. Early records refer to their use for manure production from the Downs, and refer to their ability to thrive on scant herbage and cover large distances during the day (they were folded to collect the manure at night).
These characteristics are still evident in the sheep - they graze more independently than other sheep, and can move quickly and easily through rough terrain. They still exhibit the unparralleled ability to survive or thrive where other breeds would not.
In Australia, these features have more potential to be utilised effectively. Changes to farming practices in Britain with the development of fertilisers and the improvement of soils, the development of breeds suited to intensive production of fatter lambs, and the (brief) importance of the British wool industry all contributed to the decline of the breed. A breed society was formed in 1923 to ensure their survival in a pure form, and since then the breed has remained vigorous in Britain.
In 1951, a flock of Wiltshire Horns were organised for export to Australia to Gordon Crosthwaite of Muntadgin, Western Australia. This had been pursued after a thorough research of the British breeds. Gordon concluded that the Wiltshire Horn was a quick maturing, large framed animal, suitable for fat lamb production, and had the added advantages of no shearing or crutching. On 7th January, 1952, the Wiltshires arrived in Fremantle in Western Australia. This stud was maintained up until 1969.
In 1969, Gordon Crosthwaite sold one ram and one ewe to Leo Harwood of Victoria who started the Bara-Simbil Wiltshire Horn Stud. The arrival of these sheep in the eastern State created a lot of interest with the press. However, at this time it was more of a novelty interest rather than being accepted as a sheep breed with a future.
Shortly after, as the number of Wiltshire Horns dwindled in the West, the second shipment (all remaining Wiltshire in Australia) arrived at at Leo Harwood’s property: 12 ewes and one ram. Prior to their arrival, contact was made with a Nuffield Scholar from Wales, Iolo Owen – a name synonymous with the Wiltshire Horn breed in the United Kingdom. He inspected the sheep and was impressed by their quality. On his recommendation the Bara-Simbil stud was registered with the UK Wiltshire Horn Sheep Society.
In the following months, many government departments became involved in a variety of breeding programs. It was fast becoming apparent that the novelty was wearing off and the breed was going to have an impact on the prime lamb industry in this country.
It took some 18 months after the sheep arrived in Victoria and they were registered in the UK, for the breed to be accepted for re-registration by the Australian Society of Breeders of British Sheep. In 1971, The Australian Wiltshire Horn Sheepbreeders Association was formed.
The next challenge was to convince authorities to allow classes at Country and then major shows. The first sheep that were exhibited were tall and spindly with very little depth in the body. As numbers increased, more critical selection took place with the breed making its major show debut at the Royal Melbourne Show in 1976.
For all breeders, big & small
Interest in the breed has surged more recently - from large commercial enterprises which are now recognising the benefits of using Wiltshire Horns in cross-breeding programs, and from small-holders for whom the 'easy-care' aspect makes them particularly attractive.
The Wiltshire Horn breed today is a testament to the foresight of Leo Harwood along with the careful management of the breed by a number of early breeders. After nearly slipping into oblivion almost 50 years ago, it is now one of the most popular British Breeds of Sheep in Australia.