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  • Coopworth Breeding Stock
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  • Coopworth Sheep Come
    to North America

    By Martha McGrath

    In the nearly 30 years that Coopworth sheep have been in North America, breeders have come and gone, some leaving a permanent contribution to the breed, others only a puzzling ID initial in our pedigrees. In researching the Coopworth breed in North America, it became apparent that many importers and breeders of Coopworth sheep never “registered” their animals. Perhaps this was due to the conflicts among breeders in the early stages of the formation of the North American registry, or the reluctance of some to keep the records required. Even after the formation of a North American Society in 1987, there were disagreements about requirements for registration. Some members felt that participation in a computerized performance scheme, such as the New Zealand Society requires, should be mandatory- even as letters from the CSSNA president pleaded with members of the barely two year old registry to submit the hand-written records required for registering their sheep. The lack of registration records make researching the history of our sheep difficult, but I have done my best with what I had available, and welcome any comments and additional information that readers can contribute.
    I would like to give a special “thank you” to Hope Yankey, who let me borrow her many years of correspondence, articles, and newsletters.

    A Timeline of Coopworth Importations to North America

    • 1979, Jonathan May of Timberville, VA imported 10 bred Coopworth Sheep Society of New Zealand registered ewes and 1 ram. (7)
    • About this same time, late 1970's-early 1980's, Don Gnos of Yoncalla, Oregon imported a number of Coopworth purebred and commercial ewes and one or more rams from South Island, New Zealand. (10)
    • 1980, Fred & Linda Berry Walker of New Jersey and Jan & Trudy VanStralen of Ontario, Canada imported a group of bred Coopworths ewes into Canada.
    • 1983, several rams, and a group of Coopworth ewes carrying Booroola Merino embryos were imported from New Zealand to USDA MARC, Clay Center, NE. The rams were taken to Oregon State University, the ewes joined them after weaning their Booroola Merino lambs. (8)(9)(16)
    • 1985, Agriculture Canada imported 20 white Coop ewes and 5 rams. (17)
    • 1986, Agriculture Canada imported 12 white Coop ewes carrying Booroola Merino embryos, and 3 Coop rams. (6)
    • 1988 Don Wilkinson of Oregon imported a total of 1,000 Coopworth, Romney and Dorset ewes. (10)

    Canada import rams
    At left, the 5 Coopworth rams imported by Agriculture Canada in 1985

    The first Coopworths were imported into the US in 1979 by Jonathan May of Virginia. Jonathan May , who was a college student in New Zealand at the time, hand selected 10 bred Coopworth Sheep Society of New Zealand registered ewes and 1 ram from Alford Park and Pine Park Studs, and brought them back to his “Maymont” flock in Timberville, VA. (7)(4)

    At about this same time, Don Gnos, a large commercial sheep raiser in Oregon, imported a number of Coopworth sheep.

    In 1980, Fred & Linda Berry Walker (WoodsEdge Wools in New Jersey) and Jan & Trudy VanStralen (Hilltop Wools of Ontario, Canada) contracted with Russ Dow, a prominent Canadian sheep breeder and dealer who was working with a New Zealand partner to bring to Canada a planeload of Dorset sheep, to import a group of bred Coopworth ewes into Canada. The Van Stralen sheep and the Walker sheep came from different flocks. The Walkers imported 6 natural colored bred Coopworths from Skye Farm, along with 4 Border Leicesters, and the VanStralens imported 10 bred Coopworths- 4 colored and 6 white from Waione, Heathdon, Lake Farm, and Flaxburn. (3) None of the sheep had been registered in New Zealand. (1)(13) In 1982 the Van Stralens decided to sell all of their colored Coopworths to the Walkers, but re-purchased a colored ram that they had sold in 1981. (6)

    In 1983, the first meeting of Coopworth breeders in North America, attended by Jonathan May, Fred & Linda Berry Walker, Brad Wigle of Maryland, and Mary Ann & Ron Neblung (Prairie Mary’s Acres in Iowa), took place at the Walker's farm in New Jersey. Those in attendance discussed what changes should be made to the New Zealand Society bylaws in order to establish a breed registry in North America. Points discussed were whether or not to allow competitive showing, allowing colored sheep to be registered, changing the percentage of mandatory culling until the new Society and its membership grew. A second meeting was held 6 months later, also in New Jersey attended by Jonathan May, Linda Berry Walker, and Mary Ann and Ron Neblung. Due to disagreements over the issue of competitive showing and registering of colored sheep, no consensus could be reached, and a registry was not formed at that time. (2)(7)

    Dr. Ian Coop, one of the originators of the Coopworth breed, visited Oregon State University in the early 1980s. (11) His influence on sheep grazing management at the Sheep Center continued for some time. (16)

    Dr. Howard Meyer was a sheep breeding scientist with the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture in the early 1980s when the USDA Meat Animal Research Center (MARC), Clay Center, NE was planning importation of Booroola Merino embryos to be carried by surrogate mothers (8)(9). His previous research had indicated that the success of carrying multiple embryos to term was higher for Coopworths than for ewes of other available breeds, so he suggested that Coopworth ewes be used as the carriers. It so happened that he was in the process of re-locating to Oregon State University, having accepted a position to start 6 months later. He thought that Coopworths might have substantial potential as commercial sheep under the production conditions of Oregon, so he convinced OSU to become involved in the operation and arranged with the Coopworth Society of New Zealand to select high-performing Coopworths as the carriers. The ewes (about 30 as he recalls) were selected from flocks within the Apex Coopworth Group Breeding Scheme, and (he believes) four rams were also selected to accompany the ewe shipment.
    Upon arrival in the US in 1983, the ewes went to MARC in NE, and the rams to OSU. Following lambing and weaning of their lambs, the ewes were then likewise transported to OSU. Dr. Meyer worked with the flock for several years, both multiplying the base group and in crossbreeding studies. Dr. Meyer found the Coopworth performance disappointing compared to the OSU Polypay flock, so the OSU Coopworth flock was disbursed around 1990. Dr. Meyer still believes that Coopworth sheep have considerable potential for high performance under grazing conditions, but that they require adequate high quality forage throughout the year. They do well when there is plenty of feed, but Dr. Meyer felt that they were not tough during extended dry periods such as they have in Oregon. (16)

    Among breeders purchasing the OSU sheep were Don Gnos, Ernie Copp (14) and Matt Wiley.(7) Maria Rooney, Silver Creek Lambscapes in OR, purchased the majority of the animals when the ewe flock was disbursed. (16)

    ALL STAR catalog

    In 1984, and again in 1985, the Walkers hosted the “All Star Longwool Sheep Sale” at WoodsEdge. (see page from catalog at right). According to the 1984 catalog, breeders consigning Coopworth sheep were Jonathan May, Don Gnos, Fred & Linda Berry Walker, and Brad Wigle. The 1985 catalog stated that Don Gnos was in New Zealand “at press time” selecting more Coopworth sheep. (3)

    Agriculture Canada, a Federal Research Farm in Quebec, imported 20 white Coopworth ewes and 5 rams in 1985 and another 12 white Coop ewes carrying Booroola Merino embryos and 3 Coop rams in 1986. The Coopworths were selected as surrogate mothers to the Booroola Merinos due to the Coopworth superior mothering traits. Those Coopworth ewes, bred to the imported Coopworth rams, lambed a 200% lamb crop in ’87 & ’88. The animals came from the following flocks in New Zealand; Linville Grange, Poplar Grove, Cairnlea, Stranraer, Hillview(6)

    In 1986 Ernie and Pauline Copp (Copp’s Coops in Idaho) phoned the Neblungs. The Copps had purchased sheep “from the East Coast” (possibly at the Longwool Sale? ed. ) and were concerned by the lack of a Registry. The Copps told the Neblungs of plans by Vern Clark, Secretary of the Coopworth Sheep Society of New Zealand (CSSNZ), and his wife, Thelma, to visit the Copps in August of 1987. The Neblungs mailed a letter to Coopworth breeders in May 1986, announcing the formation of the Coopworth Sheep Society of North America (CSSNA). In August 1987 Vern and Thelma Clark, Ernie and Pauline Copp, and Ron and Mary Ann Neblung met to finalize the new registry. (2)(15) After the meeting, the Clarks visited other Coopworth flocks. (4)

    In addition to the sheep that they imported from New Zealand in 1980, the Van Stralens purchased 2 ram lambs born to the imported Agriculture Canada flock in 1987, and eight of the original Agriculture Canada imported ewes and 2 additional rams in 1988. The Hilltop Wools flock totaled more than 100 ewes in the late 1980s. By the early 1990’s however, the Van Stralens had decided to sell their sheep. The flock was dispersed by 1992. Some of their sheep were sold to the Neblungs of Prairie Marie Acres in IA and to Susan Elkin of Cobun Creek Farm in WV. (1)(6)*

    Don Wilkinson, Oregon Extension Specialist, imported a total of 1,000 Coopworth, Romney and Dorset ewes in 1988. (5)(10) On April 15 & 16, 1989 Don Wilkinson planned to host a seminar on Coopworth Sheep at his ranch in Oregon. Speakers were to be Vern Clark of the CSSNZ and Dr. Howard Meyer of Oregon State University.(5)

    A letter dated June 4, 1990 from CSSNA president Ernie Copp stated that 210 ewes, not including “Don Wilkinson’s flock of several hundred”, had been registered.

    In August 1992, Vern Clark again attended a CSSNA meeting, this time at Matt Willey’s farm in Michigan. While there, Mr. Clark demonstrated Coopworth inspection and evaluation. After the meeting, Mr. Clark travelled with the Copps to meet other Coopworth breeders in the US. (4)

    Artificial Insemination (AI) has replaced importation of sheep because of the expense of quarantine requirements. Coopworth breeders utilizing imported Coopworth semen include Ernie Copp, Don Wilkinson, Don Gnos, William Krusi, Maria Rooney, Marianne Dube, Paul & Carol Wagner, and Dan & Susie Wilson.

    A new chapter in the story of the Coopworth breed in North America was written in April of 2002, when The American Coopworth Registry was formed. Wendy Furey, Pam Child and Martha McGrath, members of the CSSNA, discussed the need for a registry that would recognize all purebred Coopworths, while still encouraging breeders to select for performance. As of 2010 the ACR is the only registry of Coopworth sheep in North America.

    (1) The Coopworth Cooperator (newsletter of the CSSNA), Spring 1998 vol. 8, issue 1
    (2) The Coopworth Cooperator (newsletter of the CSSNA), Summer 1997 vol. 7, issue 2
    (3) Catalogs of the All Star Longwool Sheep Sale ‘84 & ‘85
    (4) correspondence from Vern Clark to Hope Yankey- 1991-1992
    (5) Letter from CSSNA president Ernie A. Copp to membership dated February 9, 1989
    (6) Letter from Van Stralens to Coopworth breeders dated February 25, 1989
    (7) records and letters belonging to Hope Yankey, and interviews of Hope by Martha McGrath.
    (8) Young and Dickerson Comparison of Booroola Merino and Finnsheep
    (9) Bunge, Thomas, Nash, Fernando. Performance of Hair Breeds and prolific Wool Breeds
    (10) The Shepherd magazine, October 1995, pg. 39 “What We Know About Coopworths…” by Hope Yankey
    (11) Oregon State University Animal Sciences News, October/November, 2002
    (12) The Shepherd magazine, May 1998, pg. 32 “Coopworth Sheep…” by Hope Yankey
    (13) Spin-Off Magazine, Fall 1989, pg. 29 “ A Simple Project…Quest for the Blue Sheep” by Linda Berry Walker.
    (14) Letter from Ernie A. Copp to Hope Yankey, dated May 5, 1987
    (15) Letter from Ernie A. Copp to Coopworth breeders, dated November 4, 1987
    (16) letter from Dr. Howard H. Meyer of OSU to Martha McGrath, dated April, 27, 2007
    (17) Agriculture Canada Publication 1850/E "New Sheep Breeds in Canada"
    Addition reference- back issues of “The Coopworth World” newsletter of the International Organization for the Promotion of Coopworth Sheep (IOPCS), edited by Hope Yankey

    *there was a conflict in the dates given in two different articles by the Van Stralens. The article in the Coopworth Cooperator, Spring 1998 vol. 8, issue 1 states that the Van Stralens purchased these ewes in 1986, but a letter from the Van Stralens to Coopworth breeders dated February 25, 1989 states that the sheep were purchased from Agriculture Canada in 1987 and 1988.

    Jim and Martha McGrath
    HC 72 Box 14D
    Franklin, WV, 26807