Shedding Sheep in Australia and the role of the Persian Sheep

Dr Colin Walker

Today, in Australia, every twentieth sheep belongs to a shedding breed and yet it was only just over 20 years ago that the first African shedding breeds were imported into this country. The dynamics of sheep breeding in Australia are changing. It now seems strange that, in the early 2000s, the Dorper was still allocated at shows to the “Any other Breeds” class, so new and novel was it. Last year in Australia four of the top five priced rams belonged to a shedding breed. The highest priced was an Australian White ram which sold for $165,000. Second was a Sheepmaster ram which fetched $90,000. Fourth and fifth were Ultra White and Dorper rams which made $51,500 and $45,000, respectively. The only non-shedding breed to appear in the top five was a merino in third place, which sold for $88,000. The prices of these shedding rams show that there is a real demand for them with farmers believing in the potential they have to offer. Some argue that, as these breeds only appeared in the last 20 years, the entire shedding sheep industry is still in its infancy.

The experiences of a sheep farmer recently described in the media seem increasingly typical. The decision was made to make a cultural change from Merino to meat production. The property is in Queensland. It is 75,000 acres and runs 7000 ewes. Dorpers were crossed with Australian White rams. The aim was to produce 12,000 lambs per year.

The primary differences that were observed after the changeover were :-

  1. The shedding sheep were more prepared to eat “browse”. The owners were surprised to see the sheep walk pass green Mitchell grass to eat timber in particular Gidgee trees as browse. This took pressure off the grass.
  2. The sheep were more territorial and therefore had the potential to locally overgraze areas locally, requiring them to be moved. The sheep were good walkers.
  3. The Merinos averaged one lamb per year and had about an 80 % lambing rate. This lifted to 110% with the shedding sheep. They therefore needed to carry fewer ewes to produce the same number of lambs. There was a  ready market for wethers “down south” to be fattened, which meant they did not have to hold sheep for 12 months and clip them prior to sale. Consequently they did not have to keep the lambs for as long and this cleared space for the ewes. There were now several pay days per year rather than one big annual wool sale.
  4. There was no shearing, crutching , fly or seed worry and all the costs and time associated with these activities was saved. Different equipment, however, was needed because the sheep were such big, strong animals. Sheep lifting machines and cradles were required.
  5. The shedding sheep held their condition better, particularly while lactating. The sheep were not impacted as much by “protein drought” because they  would eat “browse”. The sheep were also more heat- tolerant.
  6. The shedding sheep made better mothers.

The Role of the Persian

Over the last 20 years, several sheep breeders have used their skills to develop a number of shedding breeds. Persians, along with some other breeds, have had their role to play. Persians have principally contributed the ability to shed, heat tolerance and the ability to forage. Other breeds have each added their own intrinsic characteristics. For example, Finn sheep have brought their high fecundity with three to four lambs per birth not being unusual, while Texels have added the unique double muscling characteristic – an enzyme mutation that fails to block the growth of muscle once they reach “normal” size.

When many Australians see Persians for the first time, they often just see a small sheep without wool that comes in “pretty” colours and patterns. I know, when I put images on Facebook, that it is these characteristics that people almost invariably comment on. Although the variety of colours and patterns is a feature of the breed, one should not be distracted by these . Of the three important features that form the basis of selection in Persian sheep, namely conformation, structural soundness and markings, markings are the least important.

Persians are one of the primary breeds of shedding sheep. They developed in isolation from the European wool breeds that are more familiar to Australian eyes. Because of this they bring many different and intrinsic characteristics to the genetic mixes that are being created to develop the new shedding breeds now appearing in Australia. Persians belong to a group called the fat- tailed sheep . This group is named this because of a natural accumulation of fat that occurs around the base of the tail. This enlarges when the sheep are in good condition and acts as an energy store, much like the hump of a camel. Fat- tailed sheep have had a long and common history with mankind, having shared his journey out of ancient Mesopotamia into Africa and the Middle East over centuries. It is indeed an early group of sheep with the first fat- tail sheep being recorded in the ancient city of Uruk (in modern day Iraq) over 3000 BC. Fat tails today are found in Iraq, northern Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, Western China, Somalia and central Asia.

Many Australians, familiar with the wool sheep of Europe, would be surprised to learn that today 25% of the world’s sheep breeds are, in fact, fat -tailed sheep. Having had such a different history and developing in isolation from European breeds for many centuries, it is reasonable to expect that they have developed their own intrinsic characteristics. Of the fat tail’s, the Persian sheep, in particular, has a combination of characteristics not found in any other breed of sheep. Its short coat, spotted pattern, variety of colours, tiny tail, large chin skin fold, tail fat pad, prominent breastbone, small size, exotic appearance, heat tolerance, foraging ability and inherent tameness provide a unique combination that sets the breed apart from others. In addition, its meat has characteristics not found in most European breeds. Over the last 100 years and, in particular in Australia over the last 20 years, Persian sheep have been used as a genetic resource and combined with other sheep to create new breeds.

So just what do Persians have to offer.

Persian sheep : --

  1. Have good mothering ability,
  2. Have high quality milk containing 6 -7% fat,
  3. Have long lactation periods of 84 days,
  4. Are non-seasonal breeders,
  5. Start cycling whenever they are on good feed,
  6. Are non-selective grazers with a well - developed rumen,
  7. Produce fast- growing lambs,
  8. Are a hair sheep and are, therefore, low maintenance with no shearing, no crutching or mulesing, no fly strike or grass seed concerns and can survive hot conditions
  9. Have a tiny tail (the sambokkie) which does not require docking .
  10. Like other fat- tailed sheep, the meat has special eating qualities. The meat : -

a. is said to be more tender,
b. is leaner and juicier,
c. is higher in Omega 3 fatty acid ratio,
d. is lower in saturated fat and therefore better for human health,
e. has a low fat melting point,
f. is said to be tastier and because of this is particularly popular in some communities

Breeds containing Persian Genes

Breeds that have been developed with Persian genes include : --

The Dorper

What a sheep! The Dorper was the first commercially successful shedding composite and has now been used to develop further breeds. In the 1930s South Africa had an excess of slaughter sheep with poor carcass quality. The South African Department of Agriculture identified the need for a breed of sheep that could produce fast- growing lambs with a high- quality carcass in harsh arid conditions. In 1942, after extensive research and trialing  primarily at the Grootfontein Agricultural College, it was decided that the cross of a Dorset Horn ram with a Blackhead Persian ewe exhibited most of the sought- after characteristics.

The Persian  breed brought all the advantages listed above. The not- so- desirable characteristics were that the Persian is small in size and frame with a low meat yield, being around 45% of the carcass. The Dorset is a large, heavy boned sheep with a high carcass value and high lean meat yield, about 75% or more of the carcass. The disadvantage of the Dorset was that it is a wool sheep. After research and trials,  a breed carrying the best characteristics of both breeds was developed—the Dorper. It is a shedding breed that is known, in particular, as a very efficient producer of meat with very good carcass qualities. It is very fertile, adaptable, hardy, a good converter of feed, has good mothering ability and produces early- maturing lambs. The Dorper is by far the longest established breed that has been created using Persian genetics. For nearly a century now, each generation has been selected and tested. The Dorper today is one of the most popular breeds in the world and has, in turn, as mentioned above, been used to create further breeds.

Australian White Sheep

The Australian White is a stabilized composite breed, made up of certain proportions of White Dorper, Van Rooy, Poll Dorset and Texel blood. Having identified what was considered the ideal traits in a modern meat sheep, trial crossbreeding began in 1999 by three Australian sheep stud operations, namely Highveld International, Tattykeel and Baringa. The aim was to develop a uniquely Australian sheep breed to fill a gap in the market that no other imported or local breed was able to adequately fill. The result was the development of the Australian White, a breed suited to Australian conditions and one that suits modern Australian lamb market demands. The breed produces hardy, large -framed, heavy- weight lambs that reach slaughter weights early. The Australian White has an open breeding season and is early maturing. It is a white sheep with an overall hair pattern and has good shedding ability. In size, mature sheep are somewhat shorter in stature than Poll Dorsets but significantly taller than White Dorpers, with more leg underneath them. Created by using only the best -conformed foundation animals drawn from the four breeds used in its creation, the Australian White aims to combine the best traits derived from its founding breeds. 

The Australian White has only a small amount of Persian blood. The white Dorper came out of the same cross of the Dorset with a black headed Persian ewe (as the Dorper) but some were developed from a Dorset ram with a Van Rooy ewe. Van Rooys are also called white Persians. The Van Rooy breed was developed from an Afrikaner ram mated to a Rambouillet Merino ewe. Afrikaners are fat- tailed sheep.

Australian White Sheep are becoming increasingly popular. Research and development are continuing to ensure, that along with other traits, the meat characteristics associated with fat- tailed breeds, in particular, high levels of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, low fat melting point and taste, are captured.


Neil Garnett has spent the past 30 years in Western Australia “breeding the wool off” sheep in the quest for a highly fertile, easy- care, functional animal for which food, not fibre, is the focus, culminating in the launch of his SheepMaster breed in 2017. For his efforts, Neil was awarded the Advance Australia Award for outstanding contribution to the sheep breeding industry in Australia in 1990, by the Federal Government. Neil does not believe in pedigrees or breed societies. His focus is on type and quality. In his opinion, rules can retard initiative.

SheepMaster, which Neil refers to as the small cattle sheep breed, was derived using eight core breeds; Damara, Dorper, Van Rooy, White Suffolk, Finn, East Friesian, Kojak and Ultra White. And so the amount of Persian present (coming from the Dorper and Ultra White input) is small . The Damara was an important input in this breed. Where the Damara developed – Damaraland in northern Namibia, it is hot and arid, sheep have to walk a long way to find food, the food is often of poor quality and for centuries, there was no veterinary intervention. Only the tough individuals survived to breed and pass on their genes. It is these genes that have been incorporated into the Sheepmaster. Neil believes that breeding animals must be a constantly evolving process to meet market demand with maximum productivity. The art of stud breeding is to be able to select genetic lines to combine with others to breed a superior animal in both the male and female lines. He believes that the shedding sheep industry is very new and still evolving and is a very small, tight source of genetics at this early stage. He also believes that the shedding sheep industry is so new that no stud has reached anywhere near it’s potential and that new genetics  must be  introduced at strategic intervals to reach a good outcome and to establish a premium genetic source in Australia and globally. The Sheepmaster is a large white shedding sheep that is continuously being improved, aiming to combine the most desirable characteristics of the breeds used in its formation


In various parts of the world, the Romney Marsh has been crossed with the Persian to create the Romper. Selection criteria similar to those used in the creation of the Dorper are being applied.

Harlequin Mini Meat Sheep ( HMMS)
These are essentially small, self-shedding coloured sheep of mixed genes that contain some Persian blood. The importer of the first Persian sheep into Australia, Denis Russell, crossed some of his Persians with a small crossbred Dorper ram. The aim was to produce a small, pretty, self–shedding sheep that would have a good meat carcass and hopefully inherit some of the Persian’s hardiness .Subsequently, some breeders have taken on these animals and are trying to establish them as a breed. All of this has occurred quite recently. With the first Black Head Persians coming to Australia in 1999 and the first Skilder Persians in 2006 , animals described as Harlequin Mini sheep were exhibited at the cleanskin sheep show in Adelaide only 3 years later in 2009. Too early to be called a breed they are more of a type or perhaps an idea of a type. HMMS are variable in type, colour, size, markings and conformation. Lost are the dewlap, manubrium, sambokkie, facial expression, unique tail set and fat pad of the pure Persian. Although termed “mini” ,many of these sheep are larger than smaller purebred Persians. One HMMS breeder comments that the initial Persians used to produce the HMMS were of poor quality, having poor conformation and feet, and that crossing them with other breeds has “improved” the sheep. Enthusiasts have set up their own registration scheme where owners are required to send photos of their sheep and provide evidence that the sheep are descended from some of Denis Russell’s stock to achieve registration. As a general rule, the smaller an animal, the lower is the meat yield as a carcass percentage making smaller animals less profitable for meat production. HMMS do, however, have a devoted group of followers who regard their small size as a management advantage and see them as an attractive animal that is able to effectively produce meat in certain environments.


The Kojak is a shedding breed developed by the Heggaton family in Western Australia. Their property is located in a medium rainfall Mediterranean climate area. Starting in the late 1990s with Dorpers, they identified some problems, notably that in their location the sheep were too small, became fat at heavier carcass weights and  had a lambing percentage of 80%. There were also feet problems and difficulties confining the sheep.  To address these issues, another shedding breed, the Wiltipoll was introduced. This increased fertility and frame size. In the early 2000s  both East Friesian sheep,(which gave frame size, fertility and milking ability) and Finnish Landrace sheep ( which gave maximum fertility ) were introduced.   It is believed that the prime economic driver for a shedding breed is fertility and enormous selection pressure has been placed on this characteristic in the development of the Kojak. In fact, only ewes that conceive at 7 to 8 months and wean twins from that pregnancy are included in the breeding program. Kojaks now consistently pregnancy scan at 155% and mark well over 140%. Embryo transfer has been extensively used to increase the genes of superior animals and production parameters are recorded in detail to ensure maximum genetic advancement. Today’s Kojak is a large framed, highly fertile breed with good feet (many with black hoofs) that is easily contained.

Ultra White

Developed at Hillcroft farms in Western Australia, Hillcoft had one of the highest performing Poll Dorset flocks in Australia for meat production traits. Breeding began in 2005 to effectively “breed the wool off” the Dorset while maintaining the meat production characteristics of the breed.  Part of the reason for this was to decrease the work load associated with shearing, crutching, dagging, fly strike, lice control and mustering, etc. The aim was to breed a shedding composite sheep that was easy-care, hardy and a good do-er. Initially Dorper rams were mated to Dorset ewes to produce 50/50 crosses . On-going trialling revealed that  animals that were 25% Dorset and 75% Dorper did significantly better. This was a defining moment for the flock as it was quite obvious that the hardiness of the Dorper had been captured in the 25/75- cross ewe more so than in the 50/50- cross. The 25/75- cross flock formed the basic make-up of the new breed. The new breed stabilized very quickly, which is not surprising considering that fundamentally only two breeds were involved, the Dorset and the Dorper.  Only a bit more Dorset was added to the Dorper, the Dorper already being a cross of 50/50 Dorset and Persian, to create the Ultra White.  The new breed suits a wide area of Australia, from the wetter areas of southern Australia to the drier areas of more northern and inland parts. The result is a well -performing, structurally sound breed that has the hardiness and do-ability of the Dorper. In 2014, the new breed was named the “UltraWhite, the easy care breed”.

As Neil Garnett of the Sheepmaster stud says, the potential of shedding  breeds is only just beginning to be realised. This is probably so and means that the future is likely to be even more exciting as we see continued developments. In 1932, the merino was so important that an image of the Grand Champion ram at the  Sydney Sheep Show  was placed on the shilling coin. Who knows, in 2032 we may have a ram from a high- performing shedding breed, developed in Australia, on the 10 cent coin.