Unique Merino featured at wool show
THE feature breed of the 2014 Australian Sheep Breeders Association Sheep & Wool Show at Bendigo is the major wool producing sheep in the world, the Australian Merino.
This sheep is fascinating in that it is not a single homogenous breed, but a number of strains of sheep which are uniquely Australian.
The various types are a result of the vast range of climates and conditions across those areas of the continent where sheep are found today.
The first sheep to come to Australia (20 in number) arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, but within a year only one remained, the rest having been eaten by starving settlers.
In 1792, following importations from Calcutta and the Cape of Good Hope, there were 105 sheep in the colony, but because of almost famine conditions in the colony these had become so depleted that a Captain Waterhouse was dispatched to the Cape of Good Hope for fresh supplies.
History tells us that in 1790 the King of Spain presented some Spanish Merino sheep to the Dutch government.
Some of these were sent to the Cape Colony where the British Commandant, Colonel Gordon, took an interest in them and acquired a small flock.
In 1797, Captain Waterhouse again went to the Cape Colony and purchased, in conjunction with a Captain Kent, 26 Spanish Merinos from Colonel Gordon’s widow.
During the voyage most of Kent’s sheep died but Waterhouse was more fortunate, losing only a few. On their arrival in New South Wales, Captain John Macarthur offered Waterhouse the outrageous sum of 15 pounds per head for the surviving animals but, for reasons best known to him, Waterhouse refused the offer.
During the next few years Waterhouse’s flock increased and Macarthur managed to obtain some of these, however, these were absorbed into other breeds at Camden Farm.
Years passed and Waterhouse, who had kept his flock pure, sold small numbers to Reverend Samuel Marsden, Captain Kent and Captain Rowley.
On his departure from the colony in 1810, Waterhouse sold the remainder of his sheep to Macarthur, who spent the next few years improving his flock with purchases from the Royal Flock at Kew, England.
And so began the journey towards the Merino sheep as we know it today -
a journey that began with 29 sheep in 1788 reaching 100,000,000 (including other breeds) by 1890.
Today there are four distinct types of Merino that have evolved according to the climate and conditions under which they are run.
The importance of this strain cannot be emphasised enough.
More often than not, Merino breeders classify their sheep as Peppin or non-Peppin.
The strain was established when the Peppin brothers established the ‘Wanganella’ sheep stud in the Riverina near Deniliquin in 1861.
Today, as many as 70 per cent of Merino studs in Australia are said to be directly descended from the original Peppin sheep.
The South Australian strain was developed, as distinct from the Peppin, specifically to thrive and give an economic return in the arid pastoral conditions of that state, particularly those areas where rainfall can be in the vicinity of 250 millimetres or less and the main natural forage is saltbush.
The wool is generally at the stronger end of Merino wool types.
The Saxon strain was introduced to Tasmania by Mrs W. Forlonge, Kenilworth, Campbell Town, Tasmania with sheep purchased from Saxony (Europe).
These sheep are found almost exclusively in the higher rainfall areas of southern Australia especially in Tasmania, but also in the higher rainfall areas of Victoria and NSW.
The Saxon is physically smaller than the other Merino strains, with a lower wool cut (three to six kilograms) but still produces a quality, 14 to 17.5 micron, bright, white fleece without peer in the wool industry.
These sheep are relatively few in number, but their distinct strain can be traced directly back to the Merino sheep of Spanish blood imported into the early colony.
The strains developed mainly away from the coastal areas and through selective breeding now achieve body weights and fleece cuts similar to those of the Peppin.
A modern day superfine/fine wool sheep has been developed by crossing the Spanish Merino with the Saxon to give extra body size and wool cut with a more defined crimp from the Spanish and finer micron and complete body coverage from the Saxon.
Merino wool covers a vast range of microns.
Some breeders can produce bales of 13.5 micron, even down to 12.5 micron.
Such wools are very suitable for blending with other natural fibres such as silk or cashmere to manufacture fabrics for the exclusive fashion sector of the fashion market.
MAGNIFICENT MERINO: Luke Ball from Rokewood with the Wurrook Merino Stud’s Supreme Merino Exhibit at last year’s Ballarat Sheep Show.