Historical records suggest that sheep have been known on Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds for at least 150 years.
It had been widely thought that the Arapawa sheep originated from escapees of a flock of mainly Merino origin introduced in 1867, the original stock having come from Australia. But DNA research* has found that their closest relationship is with Gulf Coast sheep that have descended from the Spanish flocks brought to the southeast of North America by early settlers in the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. How they came to be on Arapawa Island remains a mystery.
Arapawas are not large sheep, being rather lean and light-boned. The clear narrow face and head, with alert bright eyes, is set on a long neck and topped with slender ears. Rams may have spiralled horns which can be over a metre in length. Their light build, together with their rather long legs, makes them a very active sheep as befits animals which had to survive for more than a century in very steep and hostile terrain – not infrequently invaded by equally hostile human hunters.
In repose Arapawas carry their heads rather low, and it is this tendency coupled with low-set long tails, which gives them a hunched look.
Their most common colouring is all black – with a depth of blackness which is particularly striking in the lambs – but Arapawas may often have white points, and on very rare occasions be pure white. (The black colour fades to brown as the animals mature.) The most strikingly coloured are those which are spotted with white over the whole body, and which are often referred to as ‘cocktail’ Arapawas. The photograph on the left, showing some Arapawa sheep in East Bay, Arapawa Island, was taken by Betty Rowe who was a champion of the Island’s feral sheep, pigs and goats.
The fleece of the Arapawa is of Merino-like fineness and is of particularly high bulk which makes it of interest to textile manufacturers; it also makes excellent waterproof felts for head and footwear – see Arapawa Wool for more details. It has, as well, great insulating properties – important for a sheep in the wild. However, individual fleece weights are considerably less than those found in commercial wool breeds, although the natural tendency for the fleece to be shed, which occurs in most wild sheep, is not so marked under farm conditions. Feral sheep are also naturally more resistant to fly-strike.
Some years ago a small number of Arapawa sheep were exported to Australia by the University of Western Australia, originally going to two properties, but by 2017 only nine ewes were known to remain.
Arapawa meat is fine-grained, sweet, lean, and with a special ‘gamey’ flavour much sought by restaurateurs. If you want to own some distinctively New Zealand sheep you could not do better than to run your own flock of Arapawas.
* Proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production, 2011. Vol 71: 248-250.
Association for the Advancement of Animal Breeding and Genetics, 2013. Vol 20: 451-454.