Flock­ing back to wool

When our Test crick­eters run onto the pitch they wear wool grown in the Flin­ders Ranges of South Aus­tralia. The re­gion’s hardy flocks and their en­ter­pris­ing pro­duc­ers pro­vide a neat snapshot of to­day’s Aus­tralian wool in­dus­try.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY AMANDA BUR­DON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY RANDY LAR­COMBE

Our wool in­dus­try is in rude health.

IN THE STONY COUN­TRY east of Jamestown, in south­ern South Aus­tralia, sheep pad­docks are as big as skies. It’s dry here, be­yond Goy­der’s Line, which in­di­cates re­li­able rain­fall and sep­a­rates crop­ping and graz­ing lands. Summer is bear­ing down, forc­ing Geoff Power to be­gin hand-feed­ing the 3000 sheep on his 5040ha prop­erty, Sam­bas. “They’re all on nat­u­ral pas­tures,” he says, “but we got no win­ter rain and the kan­ga­roos have been killing us.”

In an in­dus­try steeped in tra­di­tion, Geoff is some­thing of a stray. He grew up in Mel­bourne, with no farm ex­pe­ri­ence or wool con­nec­tions. “It was al­ways my dream, ever since I was a lit­tle fella, to grow wool,” he says. “It’s taken 50 years to get to where we are to­day, slowly ac­cu­mu­lat­ing land and sheep. It’s a chal­lenge when the weather is out of your con­trol, dogs are on the prowl, there are an­i­mal wel­fare is­sues to deal with and fash­ions change 16 times a year. But I love sheep and wool is such a ver­sa­tile prod­uct.”

Even Geoff ’s ded­i­ca­tion, though, was tested by the Mil­len­nium Drought, which lasted from 2001 to 2009. With wool prices f lat-lin­ing and sheep car­casses worth lit­tle more, he de­cided some­thing had to change. The wool that other Flin­ders Ranges grow­ers were pro­duc­ing was clean and green, yet syn­thetic f ibres had a stran­gle­hold on the tex­tiles in­dus­try in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“At the end of the day, wool is a com­mod­ity and we needed to f ind a point of dif­fer­ence,” says Geoff, the for­mer pres­i­dent of Live­stock SA. “For us, that was where and how we grow that wool in an eth­i­cal and sus­tain­able man­ner.”

So Geoff and eight fel­low pro­duc­ers banded to­gether to es­tab­lish best-prac­tice group Flin­ders Merino. “We bench­marked against each other, and started iden­ti­fy­ing our

strengths and lim­i­ta­tions,” he ex­plains. “Some of us have since al­tered our shear­ing times, and our ewes now lamb in June or July when there is more green feed about. We’ve in­creased our lamb­ing per­cent­ages and we’re value-adding by shear­ing the sheep we sell for meat. We’ve got two bar­rels loaded all the time.”

Fa­mously, wool from Flin­ders merino grow­ers now knits its way into Test cricket jumpers and vests, in what Geoff calls a “proud mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­nity”. Oth­ers in the re­gion have dipped their toes in the Aus­tralian Foot­ball League uni­form mar­ket. Typ­i­cal of wool­grow­ers the coun­try over, Flin­ders pro­duc­ers are work­ing hard to im­prove their sheep man­age­ment and cap­i­talise on new out­lets for their beau­ti­ful prod­uct.

The lus­trous su­perf ine f leeces from Aus­tralia’s east­ern states and Tasmania tend to com­mand the most at­ten­tion, es­pe­cially among Italy’s no­table suit-mak­ers. But it’s sheep like Geoff ’s that make up the lion’s share of the Aus­tralian f lock – a f lock that had been steadily de­clin­ing. The de­mand for sheep-meat, a string of poor sea­sons in the 2000s and wild dog at­tacks led many pro­duc­ers to switch from wool pro­duc­tion to wool and meat pro­duc­tion or to aban­don the in­dus­try al­to­gether.

Only this year are na­tional sheep num­bers and the wool clip ex­pected to be­gin re­cov­er­ing from his­toric lows (see page 73). It’s been a boon for the true be­liev­ers who have stuck with wool, with tight sup­ply pro­duc­ing record prices in re­cent months. Our coun­try may never again ride on the sheep’s back, but the in­dus­try cel­e­brated in our mu­sic, art, lit­er­a­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture is as en­dur­ing and ro­bust as the meri­nos on which it was founded.

AT NORTH ASHROSE, ONE of Aus­tralia’s most pres­ti­gious merino studs, a re­gal ram known af­fec­tion­ately as Horse strikes a fetch­ing pose. “He’s a very up­stand­ing ram,” says fourth-gen­er­a­tion stud breeder Matt Ashby of the two-year-old elite sire. “You can pick it as soon as they are

Aus­tralia’s sheep flock is slowly re­cov­er­ing from years of poor wool prices and drought, en­sur­ing spir­ited bid­ding for meri­nos, es­pe­cially, at live­stock sales like this at Jamestown.

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