The unique Miller genetics of the Wholearth heritage flock
by Dr. Tom Hutchinson, Trent University
When the early Ontario settlers began to try to improve their sheep and other livestock, including cattle, pigs, horses and poultry, great efforts where made to import excellent breeding animals from Britain. These efforts began in the 1850’s for poultry, horses and cattle and a decade later for sheep and pigs. New and improved Britain breeds were being developed and breed societies started, in parallel with the selection and upgrading all over Britain.
A number of outstanding Canadian pioneer farmers and livestock traders began a tradition, which lasted more than 50 years, of going back to the British Isles to look for the best animals they could find. They also sought out animals they felt would do well under Canadian conditions. These animals were shipped to Ontario and Quebec and either sold as advanced orders. Many others and especially the very best went to the importers farm to be bred, building up outstanding flocks and herds. The best animals from these farms were shown at both Ontario agricultural fairs as well as major shows in the USA such as Chicago. This was good advertising for the fine Canadian livestock breeds. Large sales followed. Many animals were sold to New England states, to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and to the newly opened up American mid west.
One outstanding pioneer stockman and trader was William Miller who, with his family had settled in 1839 in Pickering on a farm later known as Thistle Ha’. Brothers settled nearby and they developed a fine reputation for having and being able to get hold of outstanding livestock. As the breed societies got going in Britain, William and his son Robert began trips to Scotland and England on an almost annual basis. They often had large orders list in hand from other Canadian, USA as well as Mexican farmers. The Millers imported many breeds of Livestock but the sheep breeds they focused on, because they did so well in Canada and had strong breed societies in Britain, were Shropshires, Cotswolds and Leicesters. Robert Miller was inducted in to the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1980 for his incredible work in enhancing the breeds of sheep, horses, cattle and pigs and his efforts in breed education and selection. Succeeding generations of Millers maintained the farms reputation for raising fine blooded stock, and a good portion of Canada’s breeding stock can be traced to Thistle Ha’. The Shropshires were the breed which they continued at Thistle Ha’ over 4 generations of Millers. The last Miller at the farm was Hugh Miller who died at around 2003 in his 90’s. This property was designated a National Historic Site in 1973 and municipally in 1977.
In the 10 years before his death I helped get some of Miller’s Shropshire sheep on to other farms, often working with Rare Breeds Canada to help conserve Canadian livestock genetics in living gene banks. These farms included Riverdale Farm at Toronto, others of breeders working through Rare Breeds Canada and to my own farm. Montana Jones came looking for the best traditional Shrops in the early 2000s and I was able to put her in touch with the second outstanding Ontario Shropshire flock , that of John Kelsey and son George Kelsey of Woodville. The Kelsey’s and the Millers were close friends and shortly before his death Hugh Miller donated his purebred Shropshires to George Kelsey.
George kept the Miller ewes and rams separate but the ewes succumbed to attacked by coyotes and all were eventually killed. Ultimately the last Miller sheep at Kelsey’s was a ram of 4-5 years old. Montana managed to buy this ram and it became the foundation of her Miller line of Shropshires. It lived to a ripe age of 14 until she euthanized it due to arthritis, and he passed on many of the characteristics for which the Miller flock were known. This included a very tight fleece which was so insulating that the sheep from his line are almost immune to cold snow stays on them for literally weeks without melting when temperatures are below freezing. Other features are the thriftiness of the sheep, their good maternal instincts, the good meat to bone ratio and their excellent carcass. The Shropshires were very much favored in earlier times for their easy keeping, good fleece for making clothing and for their excellent carcass.
The other key Shropshire flocks around and of top quality up to the 1980’s were those of Ed Jackson from Harriston, Ontario. The late Ed Jackson kept a small but outstanding flock of Shrops until about 7 years ago. He showed them for more than 50 year at the Royal Ontario Agricultural Winter Fair and got top placements every year, until he stopped showing. He also received the Levine trophy at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair for outstanding lifetime achievement for sheep, given for his work with Shropshires. He kept only the best sheep and won against all comers in the Any Other Breed class, after the Shropshire breed became rare and did not have a class of their own. He knew what to look for in breeding animals for commercial production. He sold many rams and ewes to commercial flocks as well as breeding purebreds for other breeders. Every few years Ed Jackson and Hugh Miller traded rams to maintain the best characteristics of the old heritage lines. Montana Jones bought some of Ed Jackson‘s best sheep ewes and rams and got more Miller and Jackson genetics from me. She also got the Riverdale Farm sheep, which originated with Hugh Miller and so has assembled the best and most traditional Shropshire sheep flock in Canada and most likely in North America. Of special note is that UK, USA and German Shropshire breeders have seen her sheep and strongly commended the composition of the Wholearth flock.
As we move in the direction of more local, organic food, including meat, the Shropshire breed has an excellent chance of making a comeback to commercial numbers. Some other heritage breeds that have fallen out of popularity as the Shropshire has, have made spectacular comebacks and are becoming major commercial breeds again. This is happening as a result of changes in consumer tastes, especially the new focus on good flavour in food, on escalating livestock housing costs re-energy, and on animal welfare considerations. The movement to local production and to things organic has meant that breeds which originated in the times of natural organic and mixed farming (before the 1950’s) are coming back into favour. The challenge is to ensure they are still around to give us that choice.
The most obvious case of a sheep breed making a great recovery to a significant place in the market and in its numbers in the world has been the spectacular rise of the Texel, which is from a small sandy island off the coast of Netherlands. This breed had been largely confined to the island for 150 years. and only occurred in small numbers. It turned out that when moved off the island and used in cross with other modern commercial breeds it had great carcass quality. These were suitable to modern requirements for smaller meatier, and leaner carcasses. Texel’s spread, fetching very high prices. I saw rams in the south of England in the 1990`s which had been imported and cost 10,000 pounds each. Suddenly a rare heritage breed was popular and sought after by the commercial breeders of Europe, the UK and soon by breeders in North America South America and Australia. The Texel now has its own classes at many agricultural shows.
A similar thing has happened with heritage Tamworth pigs. From being very popular 80 years ago, they went on a rapid decline in numbers, especially as they were not well suited to the new indoor intensive hog raising operations. They were in serious danger of becoming extinct in Britain and in North America. Indeed when I got my own first Tams some 20 years ago only about 20 sows still remained in Canada, together with a very few boars. It has gone on a very recent great expansion in numbers and in market desirability, as the public has found the excellent taste of the pork (and bacon) to be what they are willing to pay higher prices for. Tamworth is now featured in many high end restaurants. The fact they do well outdoors even in Canadian winters is a positive, as is their and good mothering ability. This has made it has made it a popular hog for the small local producer and without the expenses of costly indoor housing and electricity bills, and without extensive veterinary costs.
The point is that flocks such as the Wholearth Heritage Shropshires need to be looked at in special way. Culling a flock of sheep numbering around 50, all if which have tested NEGATIVE for scrapie and this being an invaluable, key flock in the Canadian and international Shropshire story, is inappropriate and absolutely wrong. At the very least the same sheep should be tested again in future years and if they continue to prove negative for scrapie, then the most reasonable conclusion is that they are indeed scrapie free and no risk. The present CFIA trajectory of culling en masse then test the culled sheeps’ brains for scrapie, only to find they are all negative and without scrapie and “Oops sorry” is no way to deal with the “possibility” of disease in an endangered breed. The original concern that scrapie in UK sheep might be a source of mad cow disease in cattle was completely put to bed 20 years ago but the scrapie eradication national programs go on with a life of their own. This has to stop before the scrapie eradication program also eradicates the genetic diversity in our future sheep gene pool.
Dr. Tom Hutchinson FRSC PhD.
Rare Breeds Canada and Professor Emeritus