Changing South

Saving Captain Cook’s sheep

New Zealand has rare and ancient animal breeds which aren’t native, but are introduced. Do they deserve protection, too? Frank Film looks at efforts to conserve these endangered populations.

Michael Willis is waiting on the jetty at Arapaoa (formerly Arapawa) Island to welcome the Frank Film crew to this remote place in the Marlborough Sounds that he knows so well.

The conservationist and New Zealand rare breeds enthusiast - Willis is also a director of Rare Breeds International - has long taken an interest in the island’s unusual wildlife, in particular the Arapawa sheep.

“The sheep may well go back to one of Captain Cook’s early voyages,” says Willis. “If that’s the case then they’ve been on the island for 250 years.”

Frank Film follows Willis and his team of volunteers as they scour the island, conducting the breed’s first official head count. At the outset he’s expecting numbers to be somewhere between 50 and 100 and is hopeful the survey might be the first step in obtaining heritage protection for the breed.

At the Christchurch animal park he founded, Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, Willis also has the rare Arapawa goat on public display, with other breeds he’s worked hard to save from extinction, such as the Enderby Island rabbits and the kunekune and Auckland Island pigs. The latter has become the poster pig for the rare breeds movement after genetic testing revealed the pigs were largely virus-free and, as such, able to be used for research into treatments for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and a variety of other medical conditions.

Willis says the value of the Auckland Island pig breed was “unrecognised, until we researched it,” and he believes other rare, introduced species could hold similar, genetic potential.

Each year, Willis hosts a rare breeds auction at Willowbank, with enthusiasts travelling from around the country to attend.

Glenda Goatley has a menagerie of rare breeds at her Canterbury farm. “You hear about saving the pandas and saving the kiwis but people don’t realise there are sheep breeds that Captain Cook brought to New Zealand that are forgotten about.”

Michael Willis hasn’t forgotten them. Through his binoculars, from the bow of a small vessel just off Arapaoa Island, Willis excitedly spots a small herd of “bachelor boys” on a rocky ridge. Over two centuries, the brown, shaggy sheep have adapted to this rugged environment, surviving both nature’s elements and Department of Conservation attempts to eradicate them.

Michael Willis says the breed needs a management plan, if the 71 animals counted in his survey have any chance of surviving another century.

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