Southdown Sheep Society, NZ

"The sheep with an illustrious past and a very bright future"

Lewis Mackay - Scientific Committe Chairman

Lewis Mackay – Scientific Committee Chairman

After the trials and tribulations of the 60s many of the breeders who had stuck with the Southdown now began to work at maintaining the breed, further enhancing it, and by using science to help quantify ideas.

The Council became quite proactive and in 1972 they set up a Scientific Committee composed of members Mr LG Mackay, I McCarroll, JDW Hughes and GS McLeod. Along with the Council secretary WC McPhail they also co-opted RA Barton and Professor AL Rae both of Massey University to go about helping breeders learn more about developing a new type of Southdown that was required to meet the new export lamb requirements.

The impact of this initiative would have the most significant impact on the direction of the breed other than “Punchbowl” in the history of the New Zealand Southdown and many of the people involved would go on to be the leaders of the breed for the next 40 years.


The purpose of the Science Committee was to research and evaluate changes to the Southdown sheep by increasing the size of the animals and reducing the fat. They would then after this evaluation find ways of educating the breeders, stock agents and meat companies.

While those two parts would seem quite simple to achieve, in actual fact the detail was far more complex.


The committee needed to establish a factual picture of the Southdown-cross lamb and its by-products from the Meat Board, the meat processing companies, the meat exporters and any other related parties.

One must remember that at this time there were far more meat companies, exporters, etc in operation than today and so the committee set about surveying more than 80 companies for information so that they could move forward with more knowledge.

However the poor response also highlighted to the committee how inadequate the information was that was available, and the realization that the senior people in the meat industry knew little about the strengths and weaknesses of the major crosses, mainly due to the fact that once the pelt and head was removed from dressing lambs, the carcass, offal’s and other by-products lost their breed or cross-breed identity.

In order to obtain solid information the Science Committee set up a bold project that involved sending two container loads of Southdown-cross lambs to the United Kingdom.

These carcasses were supplied to the Pukeuri and Mataura freezing works where they were first measured by the Supervising Graders of the NZ Meat Board.

The containers were then shipped to London and at Dunton Green in Kent random samples of the carcasses were evaluated by a panel of Smithfield people appointed for this purpose by the Institute of Meat. At this stage the carcasses were also photographed and measured and cut through at the 12th rib so that the “eye” muscle could be measured as well as the depth of fat overlaying it.

Other carcasses on this evaluation were also delivered to four meat retailers who had agreed to evaluate them in their own shops.

The information gained from this exercise showed that the Southdown carcasses drafted from Southland and South Canterbury flocks and sent to the UK were of a very good type and even the PH carcasses in the heaviest export weight range were free from excessive amounts of fat and the size of the ‘eye’ had proved very satisfactory.

Selling the new Southdown

Armed with some ‘real information’ from the UK containers project to support their beliefs, the Scientific Committee now set about getting the message across to their breeders, to meat company stock drafters, stock and station agents and Young Farmers Clubs.

Their initiatives in trying to achieve these changes to the Southdown were probably the most far-reaching activity that the Scientific Committee achieved, over and above the research they had carried out.

Education was the main point of the exercises and to do this the Scientific Committee inaugurated and conducted annual Southdown sheep evaluation clinics at Massey University each year.

Clinics were held over three days and included lectures, slideshows, and live demonstrations on Southdown sheep and lamb carcasses of the various export grades.

Discussion was encouraged, especially as the purpose was to get a better understanding of the anatomy of a sheep, how to recognize muscle and fat and any structural defects in an animal.

The clinics also gave attendees the opportunity to discuss breeding methods in animal improvement and how that in turn and any other important factors could affect the quality of meat as well as impressing the point about consumer requirements.

Promoting this new Southdown

While the education of breeders, drafters and agents as outlined above had a siginificant impact, progress was still hampered as certain aspects of the export operation to the UK involved the NZ Meat Board whose policy had always been that while they would help co-ordinate projects undertaken by breed societies, it would not allow information gained to be used for promotional purposes.

This meant that the general public and sheepmen were unable to access the results, information and data from the exercise, denying them the opportunity to evaluate the true worth of the information, and of course the chance to push the Southdown back in front of the common farmer. The difference in this policy and Australian policies of the day meant that in Australia you could go into a butchers and ask for a leg of Southdown lamb – I’m sure the breeders of the time would have lived to be able to do that in NZ. If one looks at the modern marketplace on 2015, you can see how Angus Beef has been able to create its own niche, and something that  could have made a big difference if Southdown had been able to do the same.

Other Projects

The Scientific Committee also investigated other research projects including investigation into animal recording, projects at Ruakura Research Centre and research at Massey University was ongoing by students into the composition and quality of meat carcasses in Southdowns (read example here ).

The Ruakura Research Centre project followed in the 1980s as the Southdown Council became extremely concerned at the direction of the meat industry. This was because they felt more and more emphasis was being placed on the level of fat and little heed being taken on the need to produce an animal with high quality meat on the commercially saleable cuts of the time such as the rib eye and hindquarter.

The Council committed Southdown breeders to a levy and provided a $1500 contribution to the Carcass Dissection Unit at the Ruakura Research Centre, but the project never produced the information that had been envisaged, nor managed to promote the findings in any way that helped the breed or indeed the prime lamb trade.

This was due to several factors, including disappointing support from some other breed societies who did not support funding of the unit, and in the end was quite a disappointing outcome for those Southdown people who had got behind the project.


In retrospect, one of the biggest factors in the success of the Scientific Committee was that the Southdown Council members, LG Mackay, JDW Hughes, I McCarroll and GS McLeod were able to put forth a strong enough case that they managed to convince Bob Barton, previously an outspoken critic of the Southdown during the 1960s to join their committee and in fact become an advocate of the Southdown.

Barton’s standing in the agricultural community, his access to a wide range of people in the meat industry, and his respect for Scientific Committee Chairman Lewis McKay (they had been in the same class at Gore High School in 1935 and Barton would be asked to propose him for the 1990 Proposal for Life Membership for Lewis McKay) all helped the Scientific Committee have a huge impact on the Southdown breed in NZ and as such the export meat crossbreeds of NZ.

The Scientific Committee’s huge accomplishment for the future of the Southdown breed at the time was that it was able to research, educate and importantly put the breeders of the day together into a great learning environment, where the new knowledge about the animals, gave the breeders, and the stock drafters, agents, meat companies and scientists a place to interact and discuss providing a network of support and discussion that would lead the future of the meat breeds in NZ for three decades.

The leading Southdown breeders over the next generation invariably had attended several if not all of these Scientific Committee clinics and their ability to interact and pass along a lot of this knowledge was fundamental in the survival of the Southdown breed on into the 21st century.


« Previous Chapter :: Next Chapter »