Black sheep in the Mangione family

The Southern Farmer
WEB_SHROPSHIRES 02_pe_c7_20191216

MARILYN Mangione’s grandparents on both sides were farmers working the land in the Clyde and Cranbourne region.

Marilyn’s mother as a child always had to work on the farm with her older sister, and both declared at coming of age that they would never marry a farmer.

Luckily, Marilyn’s father was also suitably disinterested, declaring to his parents that he didn’t want any part of it either.

And though other family members did stay on the farm, Marilyn’s parents did not, and Marilyn was raised in a suburban home with her heart, like those of her grandparents, in the country.

It was in 1999 that this yearning for a rural lifestyle was realised in the purchase of 66 acres in the lush green tablelands of the Strathbogies.

Initially a weekender, Marilyn ran Wiltshire Horns, chosen for the convenience of not having to shear or crutch them.

But with plans to retire on the property, she became concerned that they were too big and strong to handle on her own, and Marilyn began to consider alternatives.

An unexpected phone call from the owner of the now dispersed South Windrest Shropshire Stud in Bittern, determined the new direction Marilyn would take.

“The gentleman said ‘I have a lady who I sold a ram to, and she’s not well and she needs to sell up’,” Marilyn recounted the conversation.

“‘She wants him to go to a good home’ was the explanation.”

So Marilyn put her hand up, and picked him up, along with a ewe and a wether, and Clarendon, as was his name, became the foundation ram and the namesake of Clarendon Stud.

Six years old when she got him, Clarendon lived to the ripe old age of 11, and facilitated the phasing out of Wiltshire Horns to be replaced with Shropshires.

That unexpected phone call was a fortuitous moment, as Marilyn believes she had always had the breed in the back of her mind.

“My ancestors are from Shropshire, England, near Staffordshire, on the border with Wales, and my father served on the HMAS Shropshire in World War II,” she said.

“That ship fought in all the big battles, the Pacific, the Coral Sea, Lingayen Gulf.

“It was particularly noted for its accuracy and I grew up hearing stories of it, and the significance in my mind was never lost.”

With Shropshire so entrenched in her ancestral history, the heritage breed sheep with its good temperament, ease of handling and smaller frame seemed the obvious choice for her stud.

“Originally Shropshires would have had horns,” Marilyn said.

“They have the black ears, black faces, black legs, and incredibly white fleece, but at some point in their history they were polled.

“The wool previously had been prized, and is still well-considered for spinning and knitting but it’s not a soft wool.

“The New Leicester at one point was put over the Shropshire to influence the nature of the wool.

“And as such the wool is not barbed or hooked, and is supposed to have a non-itch factor, but all this interference with the Shropshire means that no one knows exactly what the original breed and its fleece was like.”

And though Marilyn does use the wool to make scarfs, beanies, socks and jumpers, her primary business is stud rams and sheep, and her motivation is ensuring this rare breed continues to exist.

With lambs that grow out slower and longer before they can go to market, the breed can often be overlooked.

However, the smaller Shropshire offers more benefits than just being considered for the haste in which producers can get it from the paddock to the plate.

“They are the most incredible orchard animals,” Marilyn said.

“They don’t ring bark trees and they only trim to head height, and I’ve watched them eat the leaves, and they don’t pull and rip them, they just take the leaf off.

“The conformation of their body, with their shorter legs and wider rib cage means they cannot stand on their back legs, and their short thick necks stop them from damaging branches.

“And this all contributes to their weight being evenly dispersed and so they don’t overly compact the soil.

“Marriott Cherries in South Australia runs my Shropshires in their orchard and this has assisted them in obtaining organic certification.

“The sheep keep the grass and weeds in check, and clean up any fallen fruit avoiding fruit flies.

“And they are effectively running four crops to each acre, with the fruit, the wool, the sires and the meat.”

The meat itself is considered delicious, with the sheep holding weight well, and the resulting lamb well marbled with the breed considered the original lamb roast due to its round fat legs.

“I’ve had breeders in the past say to me they only put the Shropshire in the freezer, and if they have other breeds those are the ones that go to market,” Marilyn said.

Marilyn keeps her breeding ewes for eight years, and after that point deems it cruel to be putting them into lamb again.

Rather than suffer in the paddock, prone to teeth problems, they go to market as cull ewes.

Marilyn is adamant that she won’t put sick or weak ewes on the truck and prefers to shoot them in the paddock, and leave the remains for the wedgetails.

Wedgetails are a significant part of farming in the Strathbogies, and her belief is that they need some tucker too.

“There’s not enough trees and possums, and if they had their traditional diet in abundance, maybe they wouldn’t eat the lambs,” Marilyn said.

“I’m very involved with tree planting on my property.

“In one wattle plantation five species of birds moved in, and to watch the trees grow is incredibly special.

“And I’m totally off-grid and self-sufficient with my solar panels and wind turbine.

“It’s not a big footprint at all.”

This consideration for the land has Marilyn contemplating reducing her numbers, so that she is running one head per every two acres.

“Last November, I had this beautiful long green grass, and between the sheep, the rabbits and the grasshoppers I just watched it disappear, and by the beginning of January I had started feeding the flock,” she said.

“The food bill was completely debilitating at $430 per week, and as I retired in 2013 from the workforce I’m on a very fixed income.

“Times are hard, and because of the drought I’m looking to move the lambs and some of the ewes on, ideally to a nice home where they are going to be looked after.

“The Shropshire for all its benefits – the ease in moving the sheep from paddock to paddock, the rarity of problems with lambing – is actually quite hard to sell.

“I go to shows and win awards but my sales are mainly word-of-mouth.

“Recently I had a gentleman approach me at a show, and he said ‘I would like 12 ewes’ and I said ‘Oh my goodness that’s a hard call’.

“But I’ve got them ready to go, they are all accredited and fully vaccinated, and I’m fussy about their conformation, about their feet and their teeth.”

For a member of the Heritage Breed Sheep Association, and the founder of an Australian Facebook group for Shropshire breeders, sales like this are a win ensuring the genetics of the breed.

The satisfaction is huge for Marilyn Mangione at her Clarendon Stud breeding the sheep of her ancestors for future generations.

More farming news and stories can be read in the January, 2020 print edition of The Southern Farmer or click here to access digital editions.