CLASS warfare has come to the pastoral heartland of old Australia, with the sale of one of the Riverina's oldest Merino sheep studs.The stud has been sold to a South Australian pig farmer turned livestock baron.
The change of ownership will see all 18,000 Merino stud sheep from Uardry station near Hay, in southern NSW, sold next week, emptying the legendary sheep property that has played a pivotal role for 148 years in Australia's Merino industry.
The new owner of the $28 million Murrumbidgee River property, self-made multi-millionaire Tom Brinkworth, believes the sheep stud breeding system - perpetuated largely by a privileged squattocracy class riding on the back of inherited wealth as much as any sheep - is an elitist anachronism with little place in modern agriculture.
"Studs have gone out of fashion," Mr Brinkworth's wife, Pat, said this week.
"We have built our business on supplying what the market wants. We've survived, but if you look at who has gone out of business, it speaks for itself."
The Brinkworth family - the owners of more than 70 farms, one million hectares, 350,000 sheep and 80,000 cattle spread across South Australia and outback NSW - have never made any pretence of buying Uardry for its Merino heritage.
Instead, with its plentiful water rights from the Murrumbidgee River and 35,000ha of Hay Plains country, they plan to turn centrally located Uardry into a cropping property growing enough corn and silage feed to drought-proof the rest of their sprawling livestock empire.
Stud proponents argue that the great Riverina studs such as Uardry, Boonoke, Wanganella, One Oak and Egelabra have selectively bred and polished the greatest Merino bloodlines ever produced by the wool industry.
They insist their stud flocks with their priceless genetic pool must be preserved intact.
Hallmark, the 1932 Royal Sydney Show grand champion ram with its triple-chin wool folds immortalised on the old shilling coin was one of Uardry's proudest products. Its magnificent wool genes have been passed on to dozens of other sheep studs and commercial wool flocks across Australia.
Next Friday the stud flock, regarded as one of the crucibles of all things good and great in Merino sheep, will go under the hammer at the prosaic Hay sheep yards.
The Brinkworths' decision is causing heartbreak in the Hay community, where there is enormous pride in Uardry's achievements, prestige and world-renown.
Uardry manager Ben Lane decided this week to quit his job and the station - including the historic Uardry homestead on the banks of the river where he, wife Ali and their four children live - when the stud sheep go.
Mr Lane is not bitter nor angry. But he says there is simply too great a gulf between his view of the place of sheep studs such as Uardry in the wool industry's past and future, and that of the Brinkworths.
He has not told his new boss, who took over the prized property on November 1, of his plans.
"It's tough, but I think it would be too sad for me to stay on here without the stud animals that I have worked so hard for 10 years to help breed and improve," Mr Lane said.
"Something like this affects a lot of people, not just the staff but our (stud) clients, the local community and the wider industry.
"As the dispersal sale get closer, it is all getting very real how much of an end of an era this is, for Uardry and the district.
"But I don't believe that studs have had their day: I would argue that because the merino will be here forever in Australia, there is real opportunity for the great parent studs that are left to do really well."
Graeme Black, whose family owned Uardry for 40 years until its August sale to the Brinkworths, would not comment yesterday on the dispersal of his cherished Merino stud flock.
In October, at the last of Uardry's famous annual ram sales on the property, Mr Black welcomed guests for the final time, saying he was confident of the stud's future.
"It's with mixed emotions we hand the baton on to the Brinkworth family, but they are extremely experienced in raising sheep and the great thing is that I think Tom Brinkworth has plans to keep the studs going," Mr Black said then.
"I don't know of any other product anywhere that is on three coins of the realm; the shilling from 1936 through to 66, when decimalisation came in, and then on a commemorative 50c coin in 1991 and then we bobbed up again on a dollar coin in 2011."
Tellingly, within days of the ram sale, the Blacks decided not to include the historic contents of the homestead - with its old sepia photos of past champion merinos and its timber walls lined with ribbons, fleeces and silver cups - in their final sale deal with the Brinkworths.
Where such a treasure trove of pastoral history will end up from the days when wool was king and the fleece was still golden remains unclear. Ben Brinkworth, Tom Brinkworth's oldest son, says it is unfair to paint his family as philistines, or destroyers of the merino's almost sacred past at Uardry.
Simply, he says Uardry had been on the market at an advertised $40m for more than a year before his family inspected it and snapped it up two weeks later for $12m less.
"It's unfortunate when they talk like that, but I think a lot of the people involved (with Uardry) just don't like change," Mr Brinkworth said.
"And it had been for sale for a long time; there was nothing to stop someone else buying the place and stepping up to run the stud if it is so significant and has so much value, so I think you have to conclude it (the stud dispersal) is a sign of the times."
Mr Brinkworth contests that his family is not anti-stud, pointing to the use of Collinsville stud genetics in some of the family's 350,000 commercial flock ewes, and in its Murray Gray and Angus cattle.
But with so many sheep of their own, and the intention of keeping their massive flock of a South Australian type more suited to outback drier country, Mr Brinkworth said family members could not see any value to their business in maintaining the Uardry stud.
He said that a hallmark of his father's success had always been pragmatism and flexibility, and the ability to look at all of his business as a united whole rather than as individual farms.
Ben Brinkworth, 46, who will be in charge of irrigated cropping at Uardry, agrees that the Riverina and wool industry disquiet at the end of the Uardry Merino stud is really about a clash of cultures and farming attitudes.
"There is a place for studs but it is getting harder for them to make any money and it is just not for us," Mr Brinkworth said.
"We don't mollycoddle any of our sheep on our properties and we are not going to start now.
"We are just not into playing the stud game and keeping sheep in sheds, feeding them until they are fat, using artificial insemination and making them look pretty.
"So, for some of the older established sheep producers in the Riverina, the way we do things would be rather different.
"We don't wear suits, we work hard, we get our hands dirty and we sell whatever we have to, when we have to, if it is not paying its way.
"I think that is born out of necessity and is a reflection that Dad started with nothing; and that is very different from many of the traditionalists that have run the studs in the Riverina for so many years."
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