Pitt Island Wild Sheep lead a wild life... and you can taste the difference

Pat Deavoll, stuff.co.nz

Oct 01 2018

Away out on the south side of Banks Peninsula, where the wind gives the tussocks a permanent bend and the next stop is Antarctica, a group of small dark sheep move slowly up a hill.

They graze, but also lift their heads and test the air, wary of some presence they can't yet fathom.

Suddenly a shot rings out, and the half-grown lamb loitering on the edge of the group drops to the ground. The rest scatter, helter-skelter, up and down the slope, as two men come loping down.

The men sling the animal between them and start toiling back up the hill.

The sheep are Pitt Island wild sheep, or Pihepe, as the farmers, Roger and Nicki Beattie, have named them.

Pitt Island wild sheep are New Zealand’s toughest wild sheep

Pitt Island wild sheep are New Zealand’s toughest wild sheep

This lamb will become part of the latest venture by the entrepreneurial couple; Wyld lamb.

Grown sustainably and ethically without chemicals in a wild environment, the sheep are then served up in some of the best restaurants in the country.

The lambs are shot, rather than go through the stress of a muster, and a trip to the freezing works which makes them all the tastier.

And with Pihepes there is no drenching, no dipping, no vaccinations, no penicillin.

"They have a very happy, wild, carefree life until bang, they are on the dinner table. There isn't a less stressful or more organic, ethical system for producing meat than that," Roger Beattie says.

The Pitt Island wild sheep piqued Roger Beattie's interest many years ago.

"I went to school with some guys from the Chatham’s and they talked about shooting wild sheep on Pitt Island. After school, I ended up on Pitt culling the sheep. They were eating the grass the Romneys could have been eating," he says.

Pitt Island wild sheep are left mainly to their own devices on Banks Peninsula (Tim Cronshaw)

Pitt Island wild sheep are left mainly to their own devices on Banks Peninsula (Tim Cronshaw)

"Towards the end of the cull, I realised how incredibly tough they were, surviving in some really extreme country and being attacked by man, skuas, wild pigs, cattle. Yet every ewe had a lamb and the survival rate was really high.

"There was no fly strike or foot problems. They were incredibly good mothers. They could drop a lamb and you could walk right up to them."

There are 15 breeds of wild sheep in New Zealand according to Roger Beattie. Examples are Mohaka, Steward Island and Campbell Island wild sheep, and Arapara and Clarence Bridge.

But it's the Pitt Island breed, which originated from the Saxony Merinos sent to the island in 1841, that's the toughest.

Roger Beattie and Gus Liddle surveying Banks Peninsula

Roger Beattie and Gus Liddle surveying Banks Peninsula

When the Beatties bought the peninsula property 26 years ago they flew eight Pitt Island ewes and a couple of rams out from the Chathams.

Initially, they were going to keep the sheep for hunting purposes because they didn't need looking after. But the numbers grew. One year Roger brought 500 over on a boat. They got a lot of genetic diversity from bringing out such a big mob, he says.

"We kept on breeding up and then thought we should start doing something with them. We started investigating the wool side of things and came up with the Wyld brand of woollen "cosywear", and now we have Wyld lamb.

"We have called them Pihepe so that if we make a success of our wool and meat ventures there is something to differentiate our sheep from other Pitt Island wild sheep" he says,

"The pi is from Pitt Island and hipi is sheep in Maori but hepe is how it is pronounced and it rhymes with sheep.

"It's a name that's distinctive, trademarked and it has a nice ring to it."

Roger Beattie says he has worked out a farming system for the Pihepe that mirrors nature more closely than conventional farming.

Sheep are best left to their own devices, he says. Its the way sheep have evolved. Intensive farming is very recent and has been propped up by "reaching for the chemical bottle," and "consulting the drug pushers -the vets and drug companies."

"We became organic farmers because we didn't want to use chemicals. Who in their right mind would want to buy any animal for genetic breeding purposes that's had its true genetics masked by chemicals? If I were a conventional farmer I would only buy rams from an organic farmer because a great looking genetically weak ram is masked by chemicals."

What's happened over time is that livestock has got bigger and bigger and require more and more input, he says. But with the Pihepe, they are heading in the opposite direction.

Interestingly, when you do the numbers on a per hectare basis, small sheep are more productive. Bigger is the opposite of efficiency, he says.

Pihepe rams are notoriously difficult to muster and yard. A typical muster would gather at best 80 per cent of the sheep

Pihepe rams are notoriously difficult to muster and yard. A typical muster would gather at best 80 per cent of the sheep

"If you look at farming from an individual animal point of view, at average 45-50 kilograms Pihepe isn’t particularly good. But we farm lots of animals and it is overall productivity and costs that are most important."

Low-cost easy care sheep are the key to running a profitable sheep farming operation, he says. There have been studies done on this and smaller sheep are more productive on a per hectare basis. Why hasn't this got through to farmers?

Roger Beattie believes "quality" is no longer the defining difference between [meat] products because quality is "a given".

"What we have at the bottom end is GM [genetic modification] which is cheapest; then we have conventional chemical farming; then we have holistic biological low input farming; then we have organic farming, and lastly we have wild farming.

"Each of those levels is a branded product. And branded 'wild' is at the top. We are moving beyond organic."

Farmers have been worshipping at the "altar of productivity" for far too long, Roger Beattie says. The consumer isn't interested in the productivity of the animal. They want taste and increasingly to know how the animal is raised. Was it ethical, sustainable, were chemicals used?

"The false premise is that chemical farming is sustainable. We are heading in the opposite direction as hard and as fast as we can.

The Beatties have a method of decision making regarding the Pihepes which is unique.

"I don't believe I can identify a good animal- I'm not smart enough," Roger Beattie says.

"But I am smart enough to identify a bad animal. So all we do is cull. Out of 100 sheep, we cull the worst. The 10 left over are the 10 least worst."

He says he has been using this method on the Pihepes for quite a while, so successfully that they are becoming difficult to cull. So farming them is getting easier.

"We have three seasons with culling for the Wyld lamb," Roger Beattie says.

"We've just done 'Wyld feast winter lamb.' Coming up is 'Wyld Christmas lamb.' Then there is 'Wyld Easter lamb' and then back to 'Wyld feast lamb.'"

They have concentrated on supplying lamb to top lodges and restaurants around the country.

Of the top 100 restaurants, their lamb is in 20.

Of the top 10 lodges, they are in five.

And they have only just launched the brand, so the market can only grow, the duo say.


Chillingworth Road Wyld Lamb Rack - photo supplied by Chillingworth Road Restaurant

Chillingworth Road Wyld Lamb Rack - photo supplied by Chillingworth Road Restaurant

Angela Low