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History and Breed Characteristics

Breed History.

The The Dorper was developed by the South African department of Agriculture, the foundations dating back to a breed development program which commenced during the 1930's. Dorset Horn Rams were used over hardy Blackheaded Persian ewes to produce progeny which were hardy, fast growing and well muscelled (meaty). Some within South Africa wanted pure white animals, so the Dorset Horn was crossed with the native Van Roy sheep ( a white sheep) instead of the Blackheaded Persian to obtain white progeny (the White Dorper).

Farmers in South Africa embraced the Dorper Sheep and continued development of the breed. Today it is one of the most popular sheep Breeds in South Africa with Dorper (Black head) sheep outnumbering White Dorpers.

Two Dorset Horn rams taken to England in 1937 by William Dowler OBE (foreground) of Gawler River, North West of Adelaide, South Australia. They received 2nd and 3rd at the Royal show. After the show they were purchased by G. Cole-Rous to become the White Dorper foundation rams. Mr Joe Turnbull is in the background holding the second ram. (Photo and information supplied by Jon Spry Dereel)

Australian History.

SAABCO first introduced the breed into Australia in 1996 with the release of Dorper embryos for sale. Wescorp, the importer, was based in Perth and the majority of the embryos sold went into Western Australia, although some were bought by sheep breeders in the other states. White Dorper embryos were imported soon after going mainly onto farms in South Australia and NSW.

Initially Australian farmers displayed lukewarm interest in the Dorper sheep. Their introduction was fairly low key, unlike the Damaras (introduced at the same time), which received full entrepreneurial promotion. Prices for early stock were very high as their numbers were few and it was a costly exercise getting animals on the ground. At this time a lot of traditional farmers had difficulty getting their heads around the concept of NOT shearing a sheep. It is not a breed that slots in where the Merino or traditional prime lamb breeds fitted. There is no necessity for annual shearing, mulesing, flystrike treatment, lice and tail docking. Because of their polyestrus breeding there is also no mating season; they can be mated at whatever time of the year suits their owner.

Weekly Times advertisement for the original SAABCO auction.

The wool industry was quite derisive of the “exotic sheep breeds” arguing that the breed would contaminate wool clips. If the experience in South Africa was to be repeated the risk was not to the clip but to the dominant position held by the merino. A long running and bitter campaign against the introduced breeds was well supported by the Rural press, livestock agents and other members of the rural establishment. The bitterness of the contamination argument coupled with peer pressure was successful in deterring many farmers from trying Dorpers and White Dorpers.

Against all these odds the Dorper and the White Dorper began to gain a foothold in the Australian sheep Industry. The speed at which numbers of and interest in the animals have built over the past few years has been phenomenal and with it, the Dorper and White Dorper are beginning to change the Australian sheep Industy.

A number of factors played a role in prompting Australian farmers to view Dorpers and White Dorpers in a more favourable light. The fall in wool prices, the continual rise in the costs of producing wool and the difficulty in finding professional shearers, coupled with sustained high prices for lamb resulted in more and more farmers taking a serious look at Dorpers and White Dorpers. Sustained drought conditions in many areas of Australia have also prompted a great deal of interest in the breed, as the ewes are able to turn off good lambs even in harsh conditions. In Australia the growth of a sheep breed is best measured not by numbers of sheep, but by who is making the change to Dorpers. Some of Australia's most dedicated Merino farmers have included a small Dorper or White Dorper flock in their enterprise, whilst traditional prime lamb sire breeders can see the advantage of a composite ram with the Dorper clean belly, crutch, legs and face. Dorpers, are the less-work breed, that is enticing sheep farmers who have “gone cropping” back into prime lamb.

At present there is a very high level of interest in Dorper sheep all around Australia. Being such an adaptable breed of sheep, interest in them covers the whole spectrum; from people who want to run thousands of sheep, to turn off cost effective lambs, to hobby farmers who just want a couple of easy care lawn mowers to keep the grass down on their rural block.

Breed Characteristics

Adaptable.Dorper Sheep are able to thrive in a wide variety of climatic conditions; from arid to semi tropical areas. They are suited to areas of 100mm - 760mm annual rainfall.

Economical. The concept behind the development of the Dorper Sheep was to develop a sheep that could give the maximum returns with the least inputs. Thus Dorpers have excellent feed utilisation and conversion abilities (ie they do well even on pasture with poor nutritional value where other sheep breeds would not thrive, thus converting a poor asset into profit). They require low levels of maintenance in comparison with most other sheep breeds, as they are a wool shedding sheep and therefore do not require shearing, crutching, mulesing, jetting, nor constant surveillance for fly strike. They are also supposed to be disease resistant.

Good Grazing habits. Dorpers are non selective in their grazing, i.e. they eat everything , weeds and all. Other sheep breeds are highly selective in their grazing habits, preferring and only doing well on clovers and softer grasses. Dorpers like goats, like coarser grasses and woody weeds, and like goats seem to do better if they have roughage in their diet.

Meat Production. Dorper lambs are only small at birth, but make rapid weight gains from the time they begin to eat. They are grazing by day 2 and from that time fill out and grow very quickly. A live weight of 36kg can be reached by 3.5 - 4 months of age. Meat processors like the Dorper and Dorper cross lambs because their carcasses have excellent meat yields and fat distribution.

Fullblood Dorper ewe Lamb.

Fertile. Dorper sheep is one of the most fertile of sheep breeds. It has a long breeding season, which unlike many other sheep breeds is not seasonally limited. It is possible to have lambing intervals of eight months. This coupled with the fact that Multiple births are prevalent,especially after the ewe's first lambing. The ewes are good milk producers and excellent mothers. The lambs are vigourous and stay close to their mothers from the time they are born. Hence weaning rates of 150% and above are not uncommon.

Fast Growing. As the Dorper and Dorper cross lambs grow rapidly they can attain high weaning weights. This in turn means that they are ready for early marketing and therefore less feed and animal health (eg. drenching) and husbandry inputs.

Long Lived. The literature about Dorper sheep out of South Africa tells us that the animals are long lived. The oldest Dorpers in Australia would be about 10 years old. Our original Dorper ewes (9 years old) are still going strong; producing and rearing twin lambs.

Hardy. One of the main aims in developing the Dorper Sheep was hardiness. The engineers of the breed have certainly been successful in this respect. Our experiences have been such that Dorper and Dorper cross sheep have survived experiences that would have made other breeds of sheep curl up their toes and die. They seem to have a very strong will and ability to survive.

Temperament. Dorper Sheep are intelligent and curious so can become very easy to handle with very little training. The rams, unlike some other sheep breeds, are good to work with in the yards (they are unlikely to want to bash you up).