Our Damara Experience
Our lives changed the day the first load of Damara sheep ran off the Dick
Smith Truck in April 1999. We knew little about sheep and had no experience
of Damaras before that date - all our lives we had reared cattle. Two and a
half years later we are a lot wiser. This newsletter may help others to
learn from our lessons and mistakes.
1. Raising Damaras from Implanted Embryos
Our first Damara ewes were put into embryo programs and the embryos
implanted into Merino ewes. We also purchased a Damara ram and a flock of F1
ewes - 50:50 Damara/Merino.
First problems were with the Merino recipient ewes - blowfly, eye blight and
spear grass. Also a couple died inexplicably, and another couple looked at
their coloured lamb and said "That's not mine" and walked off. One poor
Damara lamb starved before we worked out that the old Merino ewe had no
milk. Others struggled through the drought living on dry spear grass, but
eventually we weaned all the Damaras, even the bottle fed ones, and with
great relief got rid of the Merinos. They did the job but we never want to
have Merinos again - poor survivors, need shearing, crutching, docking and
mulesing, collect spear grass and are hard to handle - stubborn, don't flock
2. Merino - Damara Cross
50% Damara blood makes a huge difference to the Merinos. More alert, more
agile, more intelligent and they stick together in a flock better.
But, they still grow wool and have to be shorn. First time we used a
shearer - it was a big job, cutting stuff a bit like a cross between wool
and felt. There is a market for the F1 fleece but probably not worth chasing
for a small operator. None of our F1's has had fly strike or eye blight or
any other problem except spear grass. This is a problem for F1 or F2 weaner
lambs if they go into heavy spear grass after the wool comes. Spears go
though the wool into the soft skin and in places into the meat.
For the second shearing, we used Biopclip and found it a great product. A
small percent of ewes are slow to shed their wool but most did easily. It is
a bit messy with wool falling all over the place.
The F2's (75% Damara) have far less wool, but still enough to collect spear
grass. Lambs need to be kept out of it until the spears are gone. After the
age of about 18 months they cope better with spears - maybe the skins become
3. Other Sheep Breeds
Because of a shortage of ewes we have tried other ewes to cross with
Damara - mainly crosses of Merino, Dorper and East Fresian. Apart from the
wool, with all its associated maintenance problems, the huge benefit of
Damaras compared to all other sheep breeds we have experienced is ease of
handling. Damaras flock so well compared to the others who are scheming
wandering rogues by comparison. Dorpers are now referred to as d... Dorpers
because half of them will always find a way to crawl out of the paddock they
are put in and go somewhere else. When I complained to a visiting South
African about this problem with Dorpers he said - "Oh yes, at home we say -
If you bring home Dorpers, drop them at your neighbour's place - in 2 days
they will drift home."
East Fresians are as bad, maybe worse. This tendency to wander from the
flock is exacerbated by the wool that insulates them from electric fences -
they learn to become fence runners. Some cross breed Damaras learn to follow
the rogues. They improve as they get bigger.
In contrast, the Damara flock stays together in the paddock where they are
put. No fence runners, no maverick breakaways - their home is the flock and
they stick there and can be moved in one body, on foot with no dogs. This is
a great benefit of Damaras.
4. Lessons with Rams
Our first (expensive) purebred ram was a flop as a stud breeder (because of
our inexperience). We put him with Merino and F1 ewes first (we had no
Damara ewes at the time). He did a good job, giving us a lot of F2 lambs.
Then we added pure Damara ewes to the flock. Some months later we noticed he
was rejecting advances from the clearly amorous Damara ewes - he did not
recognise these coloured fat tailed things as his - he had his own grey
wives with no awkward tail in the way. Not one of our Damara ewes was
So we immediately split the flock into Damaras and Crossbreds, and got a new
virgin ram for the pure bred flock. We have since learned that a Damara ram
who starts with Damara ewes will serve crossbreds added later, but there is
a risk in the reverse procedure.
We have also found that it is worth running at least two rams together with
the crossbred flock - the competition seems to stimulate each to more
efforts to serve any available ewe. The South Africans tell us that a few
rams will protect the flock from predators. They say "Two baboons can kill a
leopard, two Damaras can kill a baboon".
With large mobs of sheep and several rams we believe the rams will combine
to combat predators. One ram on his own is not much use - the ewes flock
around him and he is unable to fight or run. With more natural herds, with a
few dominant rams at the centre, and many hopefuls on the fringes, the young
turks on the perimeter will fight the predators.
5. Markets for Damaras
Most of our sales to date have gone for breeding, mostly to small holders
attracted to the Damara strong points - low maintenance, no shearing,
delicious meat, easy to handle, a great variety of colours.
There is a bit of a shortage of purebred ewes, until we all breed up the
numbers, so many people start with F1 or F2 cross ewes and a pure Damara
There is a growing population of Damara and Damara cross sheep in Central
and Southern Queensland and they truck their output to Adelaide for export.
For smaller East Coast Producers, unable to fill a truckload, the local
domestic or Muslim market seems unsatisfied. Everyone is willing to try, but
we never have enough production of males to guarantee regular supplies. As
numbers build up we will investigate why there are no live sheep exports
from Brisbane, Rockhampton or Townsville.
Just as the very successful Brahman cattle have spawned a flood of crossbred
cattle, so too the unique benefits of Damaras are being infused into other
sheep breeds. The South Africans call these sheep "Meatmasters" and are
developing a new breed.
"Meatmaster" is applied to Damara crossed with any other breed of sheep, but
well over 90% are crossed with Dorpers.
We had always thought Dorpers would provide a good cross with Damaras, and
despite our dislike of the Dorpers wanderlust, we still believe that is so.
An added advantage is that Dorpers are hair sheep, so even first crosses do
not need shearing. Our first Damara/Dorper lambs are due any day.
We also wondered about a Wiltshire/Damara cross, as the Wiltshire is also a
hair sheep. But one of our customers got rid of his Wiltshires to get
Damaras. His reason - Wiltshires only breed annually whereas Damaras can
lamb every eight months. Maybe Damaras will pass on this trait to the F1's,
but we do not know.
The East Fresians were a mistake - we dreamed about getting some milk sheep
so we could have fresh, grass-fed, non-pasteurised milk. But their maverick
wanderlust tendencies have cured us of that dream - we have bought 2 little
Jersey heifers. Once we get F1 lambs from the East Fresians, they will move
7. Damaras as Pets
Because we started with Damara embryos in aged Merino recipient mothers, we
ended up with a few orphaned or abandoned lambs. These were raised on
bottles (screw top baby bottles with straight teats are the best to use -
they can't cope with the orthodontic teats). They became very quiet loving
pets. The quiet rams were snapped up by people a bit nervous about starting
in sheep, and money couldn't buy the ewes who went back into the flock. They
are good leaders and even a year later they will walk out of the flock to
get patted. This is very good to show lookers a Damara close up.
In contrast, the East Fresians, (also orphaned and raised on bottles) are
quiet enough to be a nuisance to drive anywhere, but not quiet enough to be
caught or patted - they will skip off like insolent teenagers.
8. The Effect on Pastures & Parasites
We were initially prompted to get sheep by a desire to run a greater variety
of animals, eating a diversity of pasture and shrubs. That has been a good
success. We use cell grazing, and the pastures are improving in the areas
used by both sheep and cattle. Sheep prefer short grass, shrubs, weeds and
hillsides; cattle eat longer grass and prefer the flats. Moreover adult
cattle help to keep sheep worms in check and we think the sheep reduce
cattle tick numbers.
9. The Predator Problem
Dingo's and wild dogs are a problem with small flocks with a single ram. We
have foxes and wedgetail eagles, but these have not given any trouble. Dogs
Our first response was better fencing, which has helped. And we bring ewes
and lambs home at night. Flocks of spare rams take their chances out all the
time and we have not had a single loss there. (Those horns look a pretty
good defence.) Nightly yarding is not good - extra work for the shepherd and
the sheep, and a danger of mis-mothering at lambing time.
So, after a lot of thought and investigation we have decided to use Maremma
dogs. "Sheba" our first, is now guarding Mother-of-all-Things (Judy), the
house, vehicles, equipment and the chooks. The next Maremma will go with the
Damara ewes (who also have "Major" the guardian Llama). Eventually the
crossbred flock will get their white guard too, but for now we will run 3 or
4 rams with them.
10. Damara Producer Groups, Pedigrees, Records
There are two Australian Damara societies and both are just getting
- The Damara Sheep Breeders' Society of Australia Inc - for stud producers.
- The Australian Damara Producers Association Inc - for commercial
Pending development of a national register of stud animals, we will maintain
records for all sheep purchased from Damaras Qld Pty Ltd. We use "Menagerie"
as a stock recording system for sheep and a sister program for our stud
cattle. We find them very good.
Despite the huge amount of work we let ourselves in for, learning how to
manage sheep and installing sheep fences and handling equipment, we are very
pleased with our Damaras and have great faith in their future. They are
ideal for the small farmers around the cities, easy care, good for clearing
up orchards and have a good local and export market.
We still have a few adult pure bred Damara rams for sale now, and young ones
are being weaned. Our entire first crop of F2 rams was easily sold for
breeding or eating. The next crop of F2 rams is weaned and can go now for
grass eating, breeding or filling the freezer. Ewes are in short supply, but
most people seem to be able to weasel some out of us.
Visitors are always welcome as long as you make an appointment first. Please
feel free to contact us for information (free), advice (free and probably
worth what it costs), and especially for wonderful Damara sheep (money
Viv & Judy Forbes.