Nothing sheepish about these early settlers

A FEW hills over from the roar of traffic on the Hume Highway south of Sydney, is a paddock in a time warp. For almost two centuries, a flock of merinos with royal blood flowing through their veins has grazed the same stretch of brittle grass.

This Spring's lambs are virtually unchanged from their pioneering forebears, who were brought to a fledgling European settlement by John Macarthur, giving birth to the nation's wool industry.

Australia's original merino flock has, remarkably, been maintained as a closed bloodline near Camden for 200 years with little sign of inbreeding.

''There are no third eyes or fifth legs,'' the farm foreman at Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute, Greg Glasgow, said. ''They're definitely inbred, but they've stayed sound.''

Mr Glasgow, who has managed the state government farm at the Institute for 11 years, said the flock of 250 had also retained personality traits and physical attributes of a time gone by. ''They're easier care than the other [commercial] sheep because there's so much less wool on them,'' he said. ''I have very little blowfly strike.

''It's interesting the subtle differences between these sheep and the normal sheep.''

While most sheep today are fairly docile, Australia's first sheep were aggressive, difficult to handle and hard to herd. The rams were particularly angry, he said.''I won't put the dogs in with them because they'll bash them,'' Mr Glasgow said. ''But for all their aggressiveness, they're terrible mothers. They have their lambs and go: [A case of] keep up get left behind.''

The sheep, smaller than today's average merinos, are now looked after by the NSW Department of Primary Industries through a trust that includes the input of descendants of John and Elizabeth Macarthur.

''What we have at Belgenny [farm] is unique in Australia and perhaps the world - an original bloodline of sheep grazing on the same lands as they did around 200 years ago,'' Belgenny Farm Trust chairman, Dr Cameron Archer, said. As lambing on the farm comes to an end for another year this week, the sheep and their lambs graze and bleat as always, in blissful ignorance of their heritage and historic place in a country that once rode on their backs.

''It's quite incredible really,'' Dr John Plant, who conducts the flock's annual health check-up, said. ''These sheep are not dipped or treated for flies, not mulesed or vaccinated and they're ovine Johne's disease-free, and are maintained as they are, without selection,'' he said.

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