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Is Hampshire Down lamb the new Wagyu? These producers certainly think so

Hampshire Down marbling is getting compared to Wagyu beef for its high eating quality. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

Lamb producer Tom Bull's 20-year obsession with breeding a meat sheep that would "knock the Queen's socks off if she came for dinner" has paid off.

In January, a Sydney butcher sold his lamb cutlets from the little-known heritage breed Hampshire Down for a record $100 a kilogram.

"It didn't slow sales, remembering 4 per cent of people don't look at the price when they purchase meat," Mr Bull said.

"It's exciting when you find an outlier, a ram or a ewe that just bends the curve.

"Outliers can change the industry. All of a sudden, one ram can impact millions of lambs."

Tom previously worked in an abattoir where he saw all levels of meat quality produced by farmers. (ABC Landline)

Lamb marbling gene

Mr Bull stumbled across the sought-after marbling gene in the Hampshire Down breed five years ago.

At a blind tasting of various breeds at the University of New England, tasters rated the little-known black-faced "Hampy" as the best due to its marbling — fine veins of intramuscular fat — which improves eating quality.

Wagyu beef marbling scores range from zero to nine-plus. The lamb industry has a different scoring system that measures marbling by a percentage of intra muscular fat (IMF).

Wagyu beef is distinctive because of its high marbling score. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

University of New England meat scientist Peter McGilchrist says the best Hampshire Downs are double the national average, equivalent to a four on the Wagyu scale.

Dr McGilchrist has been helping Mr Bull isolate the best genes in different breeds for many years.

"It's intense, it's expensive, but it keeps him driving in the right direction," Dr McGilchrist said.

"The lamb industry's never really had top-tier lambs with that wow factor.

"Australia is a high quality, high-cost producer, so if you're going to have a high cost of production, you don't want to be in the commodity market.

"You want to produce something everyone holds up in lights, and is amazing quality."

Dr Peter McGilchrist has been running genetic tests for Tom Bull for many years. (ABC Landline)

Stocking up with the breed

From that day in the tasting laboratory, the Hampshire Down was no longer commercially irrelevant and Mr Bull wanted as many as he could buy.

There were only 1,500 left in Australia, but within months he had 750 on his property in Holbrook in New South Wales.

He relied heavily on technology to quickly build flock numbers.

Tissue samples identified sheep with the marbling gene, and embryos from the best ewes and rams were implanted in non-Hampshire ewes.

To produce as many future mothers as possible, semen was "sexed".

"Male and female semen are different weights, so you spin it around and skim them off the top," Mr Bull said.

'The Rock' celebrity ram

The standout ram at Mr Bull's Kinross stud is number 2015, known as "The Rock".

The Hampshire Down breed is attracting increasing attention after being dubbed the Wagyu of lamb. (ABC Landline)

"He's the number one ranked ram in Australia, of all breeds, for marbling," Mr Bull said.

"He's had a very influential impact on our export program as a lot of our lambs that get exported can be traced back to The Rock. He's just taken the whole Australian industry to a level we've never been before."

Kinross stud now has 1,000 Hampshire Down ewes.

Over 100,000 Hampshire Down cross lambs from Kinross rams will be born in Australia this year.

Ninety-five per cent of Hampshire Down lambs from Kinross, and offspring from its rams sold elsewhere, is exported to seven countries, including China, the United States, Singapore and the Maldives.

That's 800 lambs a month.

"I've always loved old English breeds. My wife would probably accuse me of collecting them at times, but it's great to see a rare breed now taking centre stage on the world lamb market," Mr Bull said.

From gene selection to plate

Select Australian butchers like Sydney's Micky Peacock stock Mr Bull's Hampshire Down/Primeline cross lamb.

Butcher Micky Peacock sells Hampshire Down cutlets at his shop. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

Mr Peacock believes prices will top $100 a kilogram when Tom and other producers supply full blood Hampshire Down meat later in the year.

"The higher marble score makes it a little bit richer in flavour and super tender," Mr Peacock said.

"Twenty odd years ago, beef was just beef. Now you have grain-fed, grass-fed, Wagyu crossbred, and Wagyu full blood."

He said Wagyu could be sold for up to $500 a kilo and there was "no reason it can't be done with lamb as well".

Sydney chef onboard

Patrons wait months to get a booking at Sydney chef Lennox Hastie's unique Firedoor restaurant, where meat, vegetables, even salads and desserts are cooked over coals.

Chef Lennox Hastie says Hampshire Down lamb has an "incredible richness" and flavour. (ABC Landline: Pip Courtney)

Mr Hastie serves Hampshire Down.

"The fat is palatable fat. It's rich, it's buttery, it's sweet, and has a length of finish customers will remember for quite a while," Mr Hastie said.

"It harks back to growing up in the UK — those really old-style breeds that just have this incredible richness and full flavour."

Dr McGilchrist praised Mr Bull for investing time and money to identify breeds with superior genes.

"You always need people like Tom in the industry that drive change and drive thought," he said.

"He's got this vision, and that's around providing consumers [with] exactly what they want."

Watch this story on ABC TV's Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on ABC iview.

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