Raised primarily for milk ... Awassi fat tail sheep.

Raised primarily for milk ... Awassi fat tail sheep. Photo: Andrew Taylor

THE ownership of sheep genetic breeding stock is the unusual subject of a decade-long feud that could end up in the High Court.

But rare Awassi fat tail sheep - highly sought after as a source of meat and dairy - are not your average sheep. Especially when Middle Eastern markets will pay twice as much for an Awassi as they will for a humble Merino.

The live export company YYH Holdings has accused a Cowra farming couple of ''modern-day sheep rustling''.

But Philip and Karen Grant, at loggerheads with YYH Holdings, deny any culpability.

In November last year the NSW Court of Appeal dismissed the Grants' attempts to revoke an earlier judgment from the District Court that the progeny of their 16 Awassi sheep in fact belonged to and should be returned to YYH Holdings, the Perth-based Kuwaiti company that originally imported the Awassi sheep genetic stock from Israel.

A company representative, Graham Daws, said YYH Holdings had spent more than $500,000 on legal fees fighting the Grants ''to maintain the security of the Awassi genetics'' but will spend more pursuing other farmers in Queensland and NSW who now have Awassi sheep.

''What we find disturbing is that the Grants sold progeny from 16 sheep over the years and these animals will be the subject of further legal action,'' Mr Daws said.

''Other farmers have innocently bought the sheep, in good faith. But the Grants had no right to on-sell the Awassi sheep in the first place.''

After a lengthy breeding and quarantine process YYH started exporting Awassi sheep in 1993 from Western Australia using its own pool of Awassi genetic stock. Some years later the Awassi Australia company was incorporated, of which YYH Holdings and the Grant family were shareholders.

The Grants were responsible for producing the Awassi sheep dairy industry in eastern Australia, while YYH focused on live export for meat.

In August 2003 the Grant-run arm of the Awassi company was forced to liquidate.

Two months later YYH Holdings bought from the liquidator ''all live animals comprising any Awassi genetics'' and ''4043 pellets of Awassi sheep semen'' at a cost of $132,236.50, court documents show.

However, court documents show Tom Grant, Philip Grant's father and a former director of the company, had possession of six ewes, six rams and four cross-breeds.

When YYH Holdings tried to collect the 16 sheep from Mr Grant, according to court documents he replied: ''If you come here to try and collect I won't let you onto my property.''

During following years YYH Holdings made various attempts to get the sheep, including legal threats, but to no avail.

It was not until November 2010, when YYH Holdings discovered the Grants planned to sell 208 Awassi at auction near Cowra, that the company's solicitors threatened to sue for damages - cutting short the sale at the last minute.

In March last year District Court judge Richard Rolfe found that although YYH Holdings could not get back the 16 sheep because the time frame was too long, it was not the same case for the progeny and semen of those sheep.

Philip Grant said only two of their original 16 Awassi remain.

He did not want to discuss the matter as ''we are lodging an appeal to the High Court of Australia''.

''We are not sheep rustlers,'' Mr Grant said.