Best known for pioneering the poll Merino breed in Queensland, Ken Riley OAM has died at the age of 93 at his home in Kojonup, Western Australia.
A familiar face at sheep shows, in ram sheds, and on polocrosse fields around Australia in a career that spanned 50 years, Ken has been hailed as a giant of the Merino industry, both from a breeding perspective and from the point of view of the many people he trained in his lifetime.
Receiving a Medal in the Order of Australia in 2019 for services to the Merino industry, his citation also acknowledged his contributions to community development over many years.
This resulted in life memberships of the Queensland Merino Stud Sheepbreeders Association, the Barcoo Pastoral Society (the organisation that runs Blackall's show), and the Blackall Polocrosse Club, which he said at the time were some of his proudest achievements.
He was named the inaugural Queensland Studmaster of the Year in 1988.
Born at Ashfield in Sydney on March 9, 1929, Ken's father Jim Riley took on managerial positions on properties in the western Queensland region after returning from World War I, which saw Ken spend his primary school years at the hostel in Charleville before going on to Toowoomba Grammar School for sub-junior and junior.
His first job after leaving school was at the Australian Estates-owned Terrick Terrick Merino Stud west of Blackall in 1947, moving on to Raby at Warren in central west NSW, before a brief stint as an Australian Estates agent at Longreach and Blackall.
In 1952 he took on the job of running Gowan, then an out-station of Terrick, and took control of the business's foray into the world of breeding poll Merino sheep.
Over the next 30 years, Ken grew the stud from humble beginnings to what became the biggest poll Merino stud in Australia.
"It went from an unimproved out-station to a huge complex - it was 65,000 acres, and it sold a record number of poll rams the year before he left," Ken's son Kenrick recalled.
In fact, it went from selling 35 rams in 1956 to 1771 in 1982, the highest number of poll rams sold in any one year in Australia at that time.
Speaking to the Queensland Country Life in 1996, Ken said stud breeding was all he ever thought about.
Among his successes were the breeding of Camelaird, the first poll ram to win a state championship against a Merino ram.
Camelaird was the first Queensland poll ram to win a grand champion strong wool poll Merino class in Sydney.
Another of his rams, Ben Lomond was judged the supreme exhibit at the Queensland State Sheep Show at Roma in 1983, the first time a poll ram had won that honour.
Kenrick Riley said family, sheep and community service were his father's things.
"He was best known for his sheep work - he judged all over Australia and trained a lot of good jackaroos," he said.
His judging career took him to country shows throughout Queensland and NSW plus Sydney in 1961, 1967 and 1974; at Adelaide in 1977 and 1990; Melbourne in 1982; Brisbane in 1983; the Dubbo National Show and Sale in 1988, and the Wagin Woolarama in WA, probably the biggest sheep show in Australia, in 1983 and again in 2000.
His highlight was the Melbourne Centenary Sheep Show in 1982, in conjunction with the first World Merino Conference, held in the city.
He also judged Merinos at Argentina's national sheep show in February 1989.
Following his retirement from Gowan in 1983, Ken was the studmaster at the Portland Downs Merino Stud at Isisford until 1991, classing at other Queensland studs Bullawarrie, Burrenbah, Caranna, Victoria Downs, Wattle Downs and Welltown as well.
Rick Keogh, the custodian of the Terrick Merino stud until this year, first met Ken when he arrived at Terrick in 1977 but it wasn't until Ken started his classing business that he took Rick under his wing and took him on classing trips around western Queensland.
That included a trip to Dubbo in 1988, where the pair witnessed Gold Coast property developer Mike Gore outlay a then-world record $330,000 for a Collinsville-bred ram from South Australia and $190,000 for a ram bred by George Falkiner, Haddon Rig, Warren.
"I regarded him as mentor," Rick said. "He always had time for young people, and he's left an immense legacy."
Fellow Terrick employee Peter Clark, who inherited many of Ken's clients when he moved to Western Australia, said he was without a doubt one of the best poll breeders in Australia.
"He was very innovative, always looking for ways to breed a better sheep for out here," he said. "He was also a very good judge, and could explain himself well."
The Roselea stud at Muckadilla was another of Queensland's early poll Merino studs and current studmaster Peter Hacker, who has just stepped down as QMSSA president, said Ken's promotion of poll Merinos resulted in Queensland woolgrowers leading Australia in the uptake of polls in the early days.
"He would have been extra proud to see polls outselling Merinos throughout Australia in the last 10 years," he said. "That's his legacy."
Peter remembers him as a straight shooter at stud breeder meetings.
"He was always straight to the point," he said. "When he spoke, people listened."
Kenrick regarded his father as a wise counsel.
"We didn't work in the same industry for that long but from a management point of view, he had a great perception of people," he said. "And he was a very fair man, good at getting people to pull together."
Ken married Margaret Treasure in 1953 and they were together until her passing in 2018.
Ken passed away at Kojonup on October 2, 2022.
He is survived by his children, Kenrick and Jill (Capper), grandchildren Jaime and Lara, and great-grandchildren River, Oscar and Archie.
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