SRS Genetics_FromHumbleBeginnings_cover_Jim Watts

From Humble Beginnings

Jim’s lifelong passion profoundly changes the profile of the nation’s wool clip

Described as knowledgeable, hardworking, dedicated, insightful, passionate, humble and caring, Jim Watts’ contribution to the science of the nation’s sheep and wool industry was outstanding and unparalleled.

Dr Jim Watts coined the term “soft rolling skin” to describe a fundamental characteristic of the sheep type he had identified as his goal. The sheep breeding technology he developed is known as the SRS® breeding system.

Through the development of the SRS® program, his legacy in changing the profile of the Australia wool clip was profound and his ability to use observation and genetics to eliminate mulesing was described as “benevolent genius”.

Jim was instrumental in providing the wool industry with fundamental building blocks to ensure the future sustainability of sheep and instil a healthy respect for their ethical treatment.

He was a great advocate of education and training – his theories and concepts were complex but his ability to simplify that message was remarkable.

Jim freely acknowledged the role played in the formulation of his SRS® theories by other researchers, going back to Harold Carter, a CSIRO scientist who made breakthroughs on wool fibre density in the 1940s.

During the 1970s, Jim was guided by respected sheep classer John Coy and introduced to several leading stud breeders. He also pointed to formative influences of the CSIRO Division of Animal Production scientists at Prospect with whom he collaborated on research during the early to mid 1980s.

These included Phil Moore, who worked on biological and genetic base of wool follicle formation, Neville Jackson, Ian Maddocks and John Lax, who established a link between the fineness of primary follicles and the density and fineness of secondary follicles.

“It was Jim, through hard and patient graft, who developed the visual classing system which assists woolgrowers to this day to identify SRS® Merinos in the classing race and the paddock,” his wife Sally Watts said.

As Harold Carter wrote to Jim in April 1992: “In practice you seem to have achieved the working relationship between the laboratory and the classing yards that I believed was both possible and necessary if optimal compromise is to be found between fleece weight and those attributes of quality most relevant to the breeder and the manufacturer”.

In his own words, Jim specialised in breeding plain bodied Merino sheep for high levels of wool fibre density and length on Merino studs and commercial flocks throughout Australia.

“These sheep are totally free of skin wrinkles and have high levels of natural resistance to fly strike of all forms. The sheep do not require mulesing or insecticidal treatment,” he said.

“The rams are used in about 3000 of the 35,000 merino flocks in Australia. The high levels of fibre density and length of the sheep allow the animal to produce high fleece weights of fine diameter wool of high quality.

“The plain bodies of the sheep, together with the excellent nurturing characteristics of the dams, has led to high weaning percentages with good lamb survival.”

Veterinary science ran through Jim’s veins as his father, Roy Watts, worked as a veterinarian for the Department of Agriculture, rising to the Department’s Director General, while his uncle, Hugh Seddon, was a research veterinarian.

James Edwin Watts was born in 1949 and educated at Hurlstone Agricultural High School at Glenfield, NSW.

Jim Watts dedicated his life with passion and purpose to the advancement of wool fibre from the paddock to the processor. Image courtesy Sally Watts
Jim Watts dedicated his life with passion and purpose to the advancement of wool fibre from the paddock to the processor. Image courtesy Sally Watts

He achieved a bachelor’s degree in veterinary sciences/veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1972, and going on to work as a research scientist for the CSIRO from 1972-1978, for the University of Sydney (1978-1981) and at the Central Veterinary Laboratory, NSW Department of Agriculture (1982-1985).

Jim completed his master’s degree in 1978 and PhD in Veterinary Sciences/Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the University of Sydney in 1982.

His primary research was on follicle and fibre characteristics associated with the resistance of sheep to fleece rot and flystrike.

He married Sally, a secondary school English teacher, and they had three children James, Alex and Amy.

In 1986-87, Jim worked with the pharmaceutical company Merck, Sharp and Dohme on the clinical development of the avermectins for the control of internal and external parasites in sheep.

He devised remedies to the fly strike problem of Merino sheep with research dealing specifically with understanding the aetiology and pathogenesis of the predisposing conditions to blowfly strike and devising genetic selection markers and immunological methods of preventing fly strike.

He discovered the fibre bundle was the basic unit of fleece structure, and from this developed a fleece marker and sheep breeding system that produces Merino sheep of unparalleled fleece weight, fibre fineness and secondary follicle development.

Jim’s identification of the fibre bundle was a natural extension of the basic CSIRO work, opening a whole new field. His next task was to broadcast this message to the public domain so growers could apply the principles to their own sheep.

Jim and Sally founded The SRS® Company Pty Ltd in June 1988 and then SRS® Genetics which began as a breeding consultancy to 40 leading merino studs, several mohair and alpaca studs, servicing all Australian states and internationally.

“It hit me that for 200 years we had been talking about wool in Australia and our assumption had been wrong,” he told The Land in 1997.

The door was unlocked to a whole new approach to sheep selection based on follicle arrangement which in turn determined fleece weight, average fibre diameter, quality and softness.

Jim Watts and Marcus Hooke skin sampling ewes in 2013.
Jim Watts and Marcus Hooke skin sampling ewes in 2013.

The ground-breaking sheep breeding workshops that promoted the virtues of breeding Merino sheep the SRS® way, were first run under the WRIST (Wool and Rural Industries Skill Training) banner with Peter Small and Paul Swan, in 1995 to 1997, and later in conjunction with Riverina Institute of TAFE and John Pike from 1998 – 2001.

Dr Swan, who described Watts as the “Michelangelo of the bush”, said the workshop rollout was “at breakneck speed” through all Australian states and attracting much attention – both loud support and antagonism.

Dr Swan remarked that WRIST alone, over three years, delivered 81 workshops to 3300 growers, conducted 35 advanced wool preparation workshops and 38 wool processor workshops, and held an international tour.

After these WRIST and Riverina TAFE workshop programs ended, The SRS® Company continued to run workshops on the properties of clients, Australia wide, to pursue the goal of teaching Merino stud breeders and woolgrowers the many benefits of SRS® breeding and about how to visually select for Soft Rolling Skin®.

Sally conceded the messaging at the time was challenging as the SRS® principles were not what many in the wool industry wanted to hear. “He swam up-river a lot of the time but got somewhere in the end,” she said.

In the mid 1990s, the wool industry closed ranks on the SRS® classing principles.

In 1997, The Land journalist Peter Austin interviewed Jim on being an “agent of division and confusion in the Australian wool industry”.  Austin outlined the personal cost of stress and frustration of Jim’s decade long battle to win acceptance for his soft rolling skin theories.

“I copped a lot of anger. I was accused by medium wool studs of breeding wool off the sheep and the superfine people didn’t go along with the bold, deep crimped superfine wools we were breeding,” Jim said at the time.

He said spreading the message had been a real struggle as it departed so radically from conventional wisdom.

But he told Austin, “biological discoveries can’t be erased”.

In 1999, Jim collaborated with the late Dr Ken Ferguson to publish the book, The SRS® system for breeding Merino sheep. Ken was a former director of the CSIRO Institute of animal and food sciences, and in his retirement continued with research on the selection methods to improve wool.

Through the 2000’s Jim increasingly worked with alpaca and angora goat breeders to promote the uptake of SRS® breeding principles in these animals.  He conducted many alpaca workshops in Europe, the USA, and Canada.

Sydney Royal Agricultural Society now annually presents the Dr Jim Watts Perpetual Trophy for the highest scoring alpaca fleece.

“By translating powerful scientific principles into basic tools of herd management, Jim empowered the ordinary farmer to breed extraordinary fleeces, which were both valuable and heritable. The award celebrates Jim’s enduring influence in the early commercialisation of the Australian alpaca fleece industry, and his significant contribution to the global alpaca industry,” the RAS said.

In 2005, Jim wrote of the basic SRS® principles: “We are looking for high follicle density of very long and fine fibre diameter fibres. This requires a large starting population of pre-papilla cells to be available in the unborn lamb’s skin from day 60 of gestation onwards and for these cells to be distributed as many small clusters. We are looking for very fine primary fibres of uniform diameters, high follicle density associated with high levels of secondary follicle branching (or high secondary follicle to primary follicle ratio), fine secondary fibres of uniform diameters and from fleece samples, very long fibres of uniform length.

“Merino sheep have on average 55 follicles per square millimetre of skin, and a secondary follicle to primary follicle ration of 20 to 1. Primary fibres are usually 1 to 2 microns coarser than the secondary fibres. The fibres grow, on average, at the rate of .30 millimetres per day.”

In 2014, Jim was running workshops on redesigning the Merino as a plain bodied and profitable sheep. He described the distinguishing features of the redesigned sheep as plain bodied with no skin wrinkle, high fibre density and length, and high ASBVs for early growth, muscle and fat.

Shane Axford, Winton, Qld, with Jim Watts. Image Axford family
Shane Axford, Winton, Qld, with Jim Watts. Image Axford family

He said it was important to capture density with length as length on its own was insufficient. He pointed to selection for fleece quantity and quality by improving fibre density and length with long and closely backed fibre bundles.

Jim said the responses to visual selection for high fibre density and length were improved fleece weight, and fibre alignment, uniformity, smoothness and shape. It also reduced fibre diameter and removed body wrinkle.

“The benefits of selecting for density and length are fly strike resistance, no mulesing, easy shearing and twice a year shearing,” he said.

He also emphasised Merino sheep needing good “fuel tanks” or positive muscle and fat for lamb survival.

Jim highlighted the processing ability of the SRS® wools due to less fibre breakage and noil, longer Hauter, lighter weight yarns, faster spinner and weaving speeds. The evenly sized and shaped smooth surfaced fibres resulted in next to skin comfort, improved dyeing and silkiness.

He collaborated with Itochu Wool in international processing trials of SRS® wool which was sold directly to customers in Europe, the UK, and Asia, proving the value of a farm to fabric alliance model.

He found longer wools processed faster, broke less during spinning, they made more even and stronger yarns and lighter weight yarns. Density and length goals of more than 100 follicles per square millimetre and over 0.60mm per day respectively were set for SRS® growers.

Itochu reported in 1996-2000 the SRS® yarn was soft and silky with good natural strength and elasticity. Yarn breakages during spinning were reduced by 20 per cent to 30 per cent. The fabric was described as feeling more like cashmere than a traditional wool fabric with excellent draping qualities, a natural ability to stretch, less creasing and a deep rich appearance after dyeing, particularly with pastel colours.

In 2014, Jim was made a Member of the General Division of the Order of Australia for his significant service to primary industry, particularly wool production.

On the ground, he had clients such as South Australian wool growers Stephen and Peta Kellock, Kelvale Poll Merinos, Keith, turn to SRS® principles after pursuing a path of reducing average micron using micron testing to no avail.

Kelvale employed Jim for their classing and breeding program, reducing their average micron of the stud and commercial flock from 23.5 to 19.5 micron.

“When we first approached Jim, we were disillusioned breeding Merino sheep that were fly attracting,” Stephen said.

“We couldn’t change our micron from 23.5 or get our lambing percentage above 90 per cent. One talk with Jim changed all that for me. His breeding methods just made common sense.

“Now we achieve 70mm every six months, 125 per cent lambing, no mulesing and we sell rams to places we never thought we could, just by using the SRS® classing methods.”

The Hooke family, East Loddon Merinos, Wanganella, NSW, have spent many years implementing the SRS® breeding system, and have eliminated skin wrinkle.

“Wrinkle free sheep are faster growing, more fertile, easier to shear and withstand wet conditions and are less susceptible to flystrike than traditional Merinos,” Tom Hooke said.

The Mudford family, Parkdale SRS®, at Dubbo in central western NSW, ceased mulesing in 2004 under SRS® principles.

“We are continually amazed at how we have no body strike at all on 25,000 sheep and very little on the tail,” Don Mudford said.

“We were using five pallets of CLliK annually, and now we only buy three drums per year to be used at lamb marking.”

Queensland wool growers Mark and Vicki Murphy, Karbullah Poll Merinos, Goondiwindi, were impressed by Jim’s skin testing and knowledge of skin biology and wool quality, becoming a registered SRS® stud in 2001.

“There are huge advantages coming from an SRS® Young Sire program enabling benchmarking, improving genetic gains and increased accuracy for all SRS® studs and clients involved,” Vicki said.

“He was a genius way before his time,” Mark added.

Queensland commercial producers, Shane and Jodi Axford, of Goolma Station, Winton, paid tribute to Jim for putting rigorous study and research into how the Merino sheep’s body and skin could transform the Merino industry worldwide.

“It is a proven system used today by many studs and commercial breeders to run profitable and sustainable enterprises in an ethical way,” Shane said.

“This man’s passion was infectious for people who were looking for a better Merino. What made his research more acceptable and easier to understand is the fact he owned and ran the type of sheep he engineered from all his research.

“Jim was generous with his knowledge, and we will always be grateful for the time he spent with us at Goolma.”

NSW southern tablelands breeder Dominic Hallam, Cooee Merinos, Gunning, said Jim’s emphasis on innovation and pushing the boundaries of traditional breeding methods encouraged him to explore new avenues for enhancing the quality and productivity of his flock.

“Dr Watts, through his pioneering work and visionary approach, has inspired us to adopt a forward-thinking perspective when it comes to breeding SRS® Merino sheep,” Dominic said.

“By leveraging advancements in genetics, technology and sustainable practices, Jim has instilled in us the importance of constantly striving for improvement and adaptation in our breeding programs.

“His guidance and expertise empowered us to embrace a future-oriented mindset, ensuring that our SRS® Merino sheep not only meet but exceed the evolving demands of the industry, ultimately leading to greater success and sustainability in the long run.”

Western Australian breeders Athol and Sandie Ventris, Calcaling Poll Merinos, listened to Jim Watts speak at an SRS® workshop, encouraging them to implement a breeding change which has kept them and their clients in the Merino industry through highs and lows for almost 30 years.

“We have dusty conditions throughout the wheatbelt of WA in summer. My father took up fleece testing in the early 1960s, but we always had to take the back lines of fleeces out and the micron blew out,” Athol said.

“The wool was far from anything a genetic provider could be proud of. The wool quality improved quickly with the use of SRS® fleece markers of density and length with help from Jim.

“Micron dropped and the SRS® wool on a Kpa resistance compression test was twice as soft as the average Merino wool. The sheep are highly fertile and 100 per cent lambing is no longer a benchmark for us. They are well suited to their environment and along the way we have been able to stop mulesing.”

SRS® Genetics Chairman Norm Smith, Glenwood Merinos, Wellington, NSW, said Jim had dedicated his life to the Merino industry.

“His scientific knowledge and practical expertise changed the way all of us at Glenwood genetically selected our Merinos to breed an animal which is superior for production, quality and animal welfare outcomes,” Norm said.

“His intellect was second to none in the Merino industry and his willingness to share his knowledge can be seen throughout Australia today, more so in those flocks which continue his philosophy of visual selection for density and length.”

NSW Monaro wool grower, scientist and author Charles Massy, Severn Park, formed one of the early SRS® studs with the help of Jim.

“Without doubt Jim courageously laid down a revolutionary blueprint to change an entire Merino sheep and fibre industry. He worked with Merino stud breeders in evolving a superior Merino sheep and fibre by refining, through genetics, the applied application of skin histology and physiology to thus breed a superior sheep,” Mr Massy said.

“In his last years Jim also led the way in greatly improving the non-wool side of Merino sheep. This included the capacity to eliminate mulesing, enhancing much higher lambing percentages and better mothering, improved meat capacity and quality, and other highly significant traits that lead to greater environmental adaptability and doing-ability.

“Jim’s work flowered when he collaborated with two CSIRO scientists Drs Neville Jackson and John Lax, and with animal physiologist from the University of Western Sydney, Prof Phil Moore. Despite the unremitting attacks by the traditional stud industry on Jim’s work and ideas, he stuck to his guns because he knew the SRS® sheep foundation was based on rock-solid science of genetics and physiology.

“Importantly, also, Jim kept evolving with new science. This led to his recognition of the major genes involved in the SRS® pathway (including “notch” genes), triggering a cascade of physiological and fibre benefits as the fibre diameter of primary follicles became lower than secondaries; and overall, the evolution of a more adaptable and efficient sheep with superb fibre traits the wool textile industry had hitherto been unaware of.”

At the suggestion of and with the organisational help of his trusted colleague Jim Gordon, in the last few years of his life, Jim conducted many small workshops out of his laboratory in the NSW southern highlands at Bowral, where he took four or six clients at a time through the process of testing Merino skin and wool samples and the evaluation of the results for identification of superior animals.

He was also working on a scientific paper with Neville Jackson and Jim Gordon at the time of his death, and the paper was subsequently completed by Neville and Paul Swan.

Jim Gordon recalls a “seriously wonderful man and was married to an equally wonderful woman in Sally Watts. He was nearly at the end of the line of brilliant scientists at CSIRO, starting with Harold Carter in the 1930s.”

“Jim was able to carry on this valuable work, discovering more ground-breaking information, however, through pride and prejudice within the industry over a long period of time, his work wasn’t always taken full advantage of,” Mr Gordon said.

“In these later years Jim became increasingly involved in the controversial mulesing issue that became very hotly debated in the wool industry,” Sally Watts added.

“The many studs and commercial growers with whom he worked had stopped the practice of mulesing – SRS® sheep did not have the wrinkly skin which attracted blowflies - just at the time when many sections of the animal welfare community were calling for the practice to end.

“Jim put his cards firmly on the table – he believed there was a viable alternative to mulesing ie. the breeding of plain bodied sheep with heavy wool cuts of superior processing wool, and he knew he had the sheep on the ground at his clients’ properties to prove it.

“He promoted his message whenever he was given an opportunity despite often virulent and quite personal criticism.  He would always say “You can’t argue with biology”.

Jim Gordon said Watts explained to woolgrowers why sheep got flyblown, why wool crimps, how and why sheep have different follicle densities, where wool cut comes from, why fibre length differs from sheep to sheep, the consequences of introducing fat and muscle on the balance of traits in sheep, the problems caused by hard collagen in the skin and where hard and soft collagen comes from.

“On the processing side he explained why some wool processes better than others, where scratchiness in wool comes from, and how micron plays a small part.

“He outlined what makes wool suitable for suits or next to skin. So many sheep producers should have all this information at their fingertips, however, unbeknown to me, there has been some resistance to this information.

“We obtained most of Jim’s knowledge before he died so SRS Genetics has it on hand to pass on to those who are interested.”

“All the SRS® Genetics members were all incredibly supportive and that was terribly valuable to Jim,” Sally added.

“From 1988 until his death, Jim was fully engaged, heart and soul, in his laboratory at home and consultancy work on the properties of his clients, specialising in breeding plain-bodied non-mulesed Merino sheep for high levels of superior quality wool fibre density and length on studs and commercial flocks throughout all states of Australia.”

Jim passed away in 2019 at the age of 69, evoking world-wide condolences.

At the time of his death, peak grower body WoolProducers Australia said: “Whilst these techniques were viewed as controversial by some sectors of the wool producing community, SRS® certainly stimulated discussion and challenged the thinking of many wool growers.

“Regardless of individual wool growers’ position on SRS®, nobody can dispute Dr Watts’ passion and commitment to the Australian wool industry. Dr Watts’ legacy of SRS® Genetics will continue to influence stud and commercial breeders across Australia.”

SRS® Genetics now encompasses members with 13,000 stud breeding ewes producing 1400 sale rams a year. Benefits under the SRS Genetics banner include wool fibre research and development, and education while there are direct marketing and forward contract marketing opportunities for non-mulesed ethically produced SRS® wool.

The SRS® Genetics Young Sire program involves progeny testing within member flocks with genetics from three sires used artificially in 2023-24 across 10 stud flocks. Rams are selected by the individual stud master’s and rotate in alphabetical order each year.

Using the scientific principles of genetics and SRS® breeding principles, today’s farmers can significantly advance the health and productivity of a flock, decrease animal expenses all while maintaining quality disease-free superfine wool.

Away from sheep and wool, Jim indulged his leisure hours in cricket and his family. He played first grade cricket for Sydney University and in later years social games with the Geoff Barnard Eleven.

“Playing cricket, like so many other aspects of his personal life, became difficult when he embarked on his career in the wool industry as he was away from home so much,” Sally said.

“When Jim was home in Bowral, he wanted to live quietly so his leisure time was spent with this family – three kids and six grandchildren – and his beloved dogs. He enjoyed good lunches and dinners with family and friends, his couple of glasses of red in the evenings watching the ABC news and perhaps a movie, getting up early the next morning to make the coffee and disappear into his laboratory or office.

“He could watch endless hours of televised cricket and rugby, and one of his favourite TV shows in later years was Jukebox Saturday night. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music from the 1950s to 1970s.”

Jim and Sally enjoyed a few overseas trips together but the fondest memories are the many small holidays in Australia with friends walking along beaches, through the bush, sitting in a café or simply bonding over a game of cards.