Not a case of sheep-rustling exactly, but its modern equivalent. YYH Holdings acquired 16 rare Awassi sheep from the liquidators of their owner, Awassi Pty Ltd, in 2003. Grant, a shareholder of Awassi Pty, seems to have wanted to keep the sheep for himself. In 2004, YYH attempted to recover the sheep and pellets of their semen from Grant, without success (and without initiating legal proceedings). In 2010, Grant attempted to sell the herd – which had by this point grown to 209 head, all of them bred from the original stock of 16. YYH commenced an action to recover the original herd, their progeny and any semen or embryos in the possession of Grant. Grant admitted that he had wrongfully converted the herd but pointed out that the 6-year limitation period for YYH’s claim had expired – and that the limitation period applied to the progeny as much as to the progenitors.  

The trial judge agreed with Grant about the expiration of the limitation period, but didn’t think it extended to the descendants of the original 16 sheep, which were different goods (animals being personal property). Grant appealed but lost: Grant v YYH Holdings Pty Ltd, [2012] NWSCA 360. The old (very old: by 1572) rule at common law is that ‘the offspring of domestic animals are the property of the owner of the dam’ (mother, for city folk) – except, somewhat oddly, in the case of swans. While noting that the trial judge had elided the torts of detinue and conversion, this did not affect the result or displace the common-law rule about the ownership of animal offspring. Grant’s argument that the offspring were essentially the same goods as the original 16 was rejected, and relying on the holding in an ‘abhorrent’ 1856 Tennessee case that the acquirer of a female slave also acquires her child was certainly a tactical error. The descendants of YYH’s original herd and the genetic material derived from it were separate items of property from the 16 and thus the subject of a separate claim which had not expired in 2010. There was some merit to Grant’s argument that if YYH’s title to the 16 had been extinguished by the relevant provision of the limitations statute then there could be no claim to the progeny of sheep YYH no longer owned, but the argument had not been raised at trial and could not be considered on appeal. As appears to be the case with Australian appellate decisions, there is an excellent round-up of domestic, English and Canadian authorities.  

[Link available here].