Over Queens Birthday weekend, I took myself on a geeky little road trip. One of the stop was Tarndwarncoort, a historic farm about an hour and a half drive from Melbourne, where I was lucky enough to chat to the owners Tom and Wendy Dennis.
Often, to describe something as historic is to place it in the past, cut it of from the present, and reduce its chance for the future. That’s why it’s important to think of Tarndwarncoort as more than just a farm with a historic past; it’s present and future are just as much as part of it.
Tarnwarncoort’s past certainly is impressive though, as it is the home of the Polwarth, Australia’s first breed of sheep.
The Dennis family settled in western Victoria in 1841, when Alexander Dennis (Tom’s great-great-grandfather, I think) bought his wife, young children, and a couple of brothers across from Cornwall via Tasmania where they had picked up some stock and tools. Leaving his young family in Tasmania, Alexander and his brothers drove 600 sheep west from Geelong until they decided to purchase the 5000-acre (2024 ha) Keerangee-Balloort run near Birregurra.
Alexander gradually developed the farm, which was renamed Tarndwarncoort, and became a pillar of the local community, doing all the things local pillars do – sitting on councils and boards, donating land, and building churches. He also designed and commissioned the homestead at Tarndwarncoort, an impressive freestone rubble house that is now heritage-listed.
By 1880, Alexander’s son Richard had taken over the farm. He noticed the Merino sheep weren’t quite standing up to the local Otway climate (which can be rather wet by Australian standards) and were developing fleece rot and other problems. He set about to develop a new, hardy breed of sheep and the result was the Polwarth. Originally known as Dennis Comebacks, Polwarths are three parts Merino, one part Lincoln. They have a slightly longer fleece, that repels water better and dries faster than shorter, tighter fleeces.
Others in the district soon saw the benefits Polwarth offered and starting breeding similar sheep. Richard’s brother Alexander had them on his farm ‘Eeyeuk’ in Noorat and Holford Wettenhall (best name ever!) of Carrs Plains, Stawell were next to take them up. The breed was so popular, that in 1919 the Polwarth Sheepbreeder’s Association (PSA) was formed, in traditional Aussie style by meeting in a bar (the now demolished Scott’s Hotel in Melbourne).
The PSA is still going strong with 22 breeders in Australia, of which Tarnwarncoort is one.
Tarnwarncoort is still very much a working farm. After chatting for a bit, Tom had to excuse himself to go and feed the sheep.
Tarnwarncoort is still very much a working farm. After chatting for a bit, Tom had to excuse himself to go and feed the sheep. He describes their tolerance of sheep whose wool has turned ‘scratchy’ as ‘ruthless’ – they won’t be a part of the flock for long. Younger sheep (normally about a year old) wear coats – not to keep them warm, but to protect their young, soft fleece.
There’s really only two sheep on the farm that aren’t subject to this ruthlessness. Two previous pet lambs live in a paddock behind the garden, where visitors can feed them from a large bucket of sheep pellets, which they hover up at the most amazing rate! It gives visitors a chance to see the fleece up close. As I was there on a bit of a wet day, I can tell you that the fleece below the outer layer was perfectly dry.
The sheep are shorn every autumn and the resulting fleece turned into tops and yarns. The yarn is no longer processed in Australia; it’s too hard to find a mill to process the small amount they produce. Instead the yarn is sent to Design Spun in Napier, New Zealand, where, Tom tells me, the mill lets them do two or three bales, rather than twenty to thirty.
Tom and Wendy told me that Design Spun are great to work with, but the customs departments of both countries involved are not.
Tom and Wendy told me that Design Spun are great to work with, but the customs departments of both countries involved are not. Wendy described the process of getting fleece out of Australia and into New Zealand and the resulting yarn back into Australia as a ‘rigmarole’ and that the two customs departments appear to be at ‘loggerheads’. It doesn’t really surprise me; New Zealand is notoriously strict on biosecurity (and quite rightly so, we have an unique environment and many industries to protect) and Australian customs are bastards who for many years would not let perfectly good New Zealand apples into the country (but I may be a bit biased on that matter). Anyway, I’m glad the Dennis family is willing to run the bureaucratic and administrative gauntlet because the resulting yarn is gorgeous.
Tarnwarncoort yarns can be purchased in store or online – but you’re far better off going into the store, because the texture of these yarns has to felt. And foddled. And cuddled. And then carried around the store for a bit (quit looking at me like that. You would’ve done it too). There are four and eight ply options, in 100% wool or a wool-silk mix that has all the softness of the Polwarth yarn with a beautiful sheen. They do have dyed options, but the stars for me were the natural colours in chocolate, cream, and caramel. I bought about 700gms of the 4ply wool-silk blend in caramel.
On top the more traditional business of farming, the Dennises have added more modern endeavours. The old homestead and farmers’ cottages have been converted to a very lovely accommodation. There’s a cafe for refreshments after walking around the historic farm. You can trek over the back of the farm on a self-guided walk with a map that points out historic and interesting features.
And as to its future? Well, while I was there, one son arrived with friends for a working bee to turn one of the stables into a home and the other son was soon to arrive back from overseas. From this brief encounter, I got the same impression of enthusiasm and dedication that I did from their parents. I think if we continue to support Tarndwarncoort, they have a chance – so start planning your visit!
Tarndwarncoort is open Saturday and Sundays from 10am to 4pm. If travelling along the Princes Highway, turn off at the big sign to Birregurra and take the first two rights – you should see the sign at the end of the road.
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