In the development of the great Australian sheep flocks, Merinos of all types were introduced initially from the Cape Colony in 1797, and then from a number of other countries where the famed “Spanish sheep” (as they were widely known) had gained prominence by the early years of the nineteenth century – notably England, Saxony (S E Germany), France and America. Through selection and crossbreeding, and with particular attention to the impact of the environment on both animal and fleece, the Australian Merino that we now know evolved.

Evolution of the Australian Merino

The Australian Merino is not a single homogenous breed but a number of ‘strains’ of sheep all of which, regardless of their origins, are uniquely Australian. The major factor determining the Merino’s development has been the requirement for environmental suitability. Very few, if any, domestic animals in this or any other country have shown such resilience or responded with such versatility and success to Australia’s enormous variations in climatic conditions, management and husbandry techniques. By skilful breeding and selection, the pioneer breeders set down the foundation of the Australian Merino.

Today, modern technology plays an integral role in future decision-making. Objective measurements are being provided by stud breeders which, when combined with subjective appraisal, help identify an animal’s genetic traits. With semen insemination and embryo transfer now a routine procedure, future extensions of these techniques include sexed semen and production of invitro fertilized embryos developed from eggs taken from young lambs. Reliance on D.N.A. tests is fast becoming a reality, and experiments with cloning are well underway.

The clip profile of wool has shifted in recent years. During the nineties, an increasing number of woolgrowers focussed on fining up their wool in an attempt to capture the apparent premiums in the market. The rise in the proportion of fine wool, particularly superfine wool, which in 2002 is estimated to be 24% of the market, has seen the gap between fine and mid-micron prices narrow.


There are four basic strains of Merino sheep


Peppin Merino

So important is this strain that sheep men throughout Australia often classify their sheep simply as being either Peppin, or non-Peppin. The “Wanganella” sheep stud was established by the Peppin brothers near Deniliquin, in the Riverina, in 1861. Though it is not possible to say exactly what path they followed in developing the Merino strain that now bears their name, it seems clear that Merinos of both Spanish and French origin were introduced. The influence of a single French ‘Rambouillet’ ram, called Emperor, is now widely acknowledged as one of the most important events in the development of the Peppin stud, and makes this ram the outstanding sire in the history of the nation’s wool industry.

As many as 70 percent of today’s Australian Merinos are said to be directly descended from the Peppin-developed sheep.

The Peppin Merino of today is prized for its ability to thrive in drier inland regions, where its large frame and long legs make it an efficient forager. Its heavy fleece falls in the mid-range of Merino wool qualities and is protected from the excesses of the environment by a comparatively high content of natural wool grease, which can be seen as a creamy colour in the wool.

The Peppin Merino is particularly prevalent in the sheep flocks of Queensland, on the slopes and plains of NSW, through the north of Victoria and the mixed farming areas of South Australia and Western Australia. So adaptable is the strain, however, that it can also be found in significant numbers in the higher rainfall areas of Victoria, Tasmania and NSW.

The Merino sheep introduced into Australia soon after settlement were able to produce a creamy fleece of 1 1/2 - 2 kg. each year. By way of contrast, a Peppin Merino stud ram of today may produce up to 18 kg. or more of wool, and it is not unusual for commercial animals of this breed to produce up to 10 kg. of wool each year.


South Australian Merino

While the Peppin sheep were developed for the temperate climate of the slopes and plains and particularly for the Riverina, South Australian Merinos were specifically bred to thrive and provide an economic return from wool in the arid pastoral conditions found in much of that State.

Rainfall in these districts is mostly in the vicinity of 250 mm per year or less, and plants such as the saltbush (Attriplex spp.) make up a large part of the natural vegetation.

The South Australian Merino is physically the largest of the strains of Merino sheep in this country. They are generally longer, taller and heavier of body than the Peppin types, and tend to have less loose skin, in the form of skin wrinkles, than other strains.

The wool from these sheep is at the strongest (i.e. thickest in fibre diameter) end of the range of Merino wool types. It also tends to carry a higher proportion of natural grease, which has been specifically sought by breeders to provide protection to the fibre under the most adverse grazing conditions.

Apart from South Australia, this strain of Merino is found in significant numbers in the pastoral regions of Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales.


Saxon Merino

Saxon Merino sheep are found exclusively in the higher rainfall country of southern Australia, especially in the highlands of Tasmania, the cooler and wetter regions of Victoria and the tablelands of New South Wales. Just as these climatic and pastoral conditions contrast with those where the South Australian Merino is found, so too in almost every respect do the sheep.

Physically the smallest of the Merino types, cutting the lowest weight of wool (3-6 kg.), the Saxon Merino is without peer in the quality of wool produced, e.g. a sheep producing 14 microns would cut 3 kilos and a sheep producing 17.5 microns up to 6 kilos.

Specifically, this wool is extremely bright and white in colour, soft to handle and fine (i.e. narrow) in diameter. These features make this wool prized by the textile industry for the highest quality and most expensive cloths it can produce.


Spanish Merino

Though relatively few in number, there is a distinct strain of the Australian Merino that is directly descended from Merino sheep of “Spanish” blood imported into the colony.

After the drier inland had been opened up and the Spanish blood sheep moved away from the coast, significant advances in body size and wool weights were achieved. Today, these sheep achieve body weights and fleece weights of the same magnitude as the Peppin strain, and are mostly found in the same climatic zones.

The modern day superfine/fine wool sheep has been developed by crossing the Spanish Merino with the Saxon. The reason for the cross is to get the extra wool cut and body size as well as a more defined crimp from the Spanish merino and the finer micron and complete body coverage in the wool from the Saxon sheep. Saxon sheep have wool coverage even down to the ankles where other breeds do not have the same leg coverage. This sheep has assisted the sheep breeder to decrease their average clip fibre diameter and increase their wool weights.


Bloodlines

Three broad categories or bloodlines have evolved over the years being fine (used mainly in men’s and women’s fashions), medium (giving soft handling wool for light suiting and knitwear), and strong wool (providing middle-weight suiting fabric and jersey wool). These strong wools are predominantly used in blending with Polyester and Acrylic fibres to produce cheaper suiting fabrics. The medium and strong wools are used in the commercial sector of the consumer chain. These fabrics are used in the automobile and aircraft sector for seating and interior wall covering. Designers are making greater use of these materials as wall covering in buildings.


Fine wool

Fine wool types are found mainly in the northern and southern tableland areas of New South Wales, the western and southern districts of Victoria and the midlands of Tasmania. They are distinguished by a small to medium-sized but compact frame and produce a soft, bright coloured dense fleece with a fibre diameter of 19.5 microns and below. Staple length is about 70-95 mm. However, specialist woolgrowers have achieved great gains and, depending on the micron, now produce commercial weights of 3 to 7 kilos of superfine and ultrafine wools.


Superfine Wool

Superfine wool type, with a fibre diameter of 17.6-18.5 microns.


Ultrafine wool

Ultrafine wool type being the finest wool fibre in the world with a fibre diameter of 17.5 microns or finer. Breeders concentrating on extra fine microns are now producing 13.5 micron bales, and even a few below that. These ultrafine Merinos in the range of 12.5 to 16.9 are very suitable for blending with other exclusive fibres such as Silk and Cashmere to manufacture high value fabrics for the exclusive fashion sector of the market.


Fine-Medium wool

Fine-Medium wool is in the micron range 19.6-20.5. This micron range is now becoming a very large section of the Australian Merino breeding industry due to breeders achieving their goal of producing a finer micron and maintaining their fleece weights similar to the medium Merino. These sheep are able to cut weights in a commercial situation of 5 to 8 kilos, with a staple length of 85 to 110 mm.

Fine wool Merino (19.5 microns and below) high rainfall areas
Photo courtesy – The Land


Medium Wool

Medium wool types are the main representative of the Merino breed and are found in extremely large numbers throughout the broad pastoral areas of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The sheep are large framed and relatively plain bodied, producing a heavy fleece which is soft handling and of good colour with a fibre diameter of 20.6-22.5 microns. Staple length is approximately 90 to 115 mm. These sheep cut similar weights to the fine-medium.

Medium wool Merino (20.6–22.5 microns)


Strong Wool

Strong wool types are most prominent in western New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia. In fact, in South Australia, the strong woolled South Australian strain of Merino comprises over 85% of the State’s sheep numbers. The strong wool Merino has adapted itself particularly to the hot, dry, semi-arid areas of Australia. The strain is very large framed, plain bodied and open faced, making it a particularly ‘easy care’ sheep for semi-arid areas. It produces a heavy cutting fleece of around 100 mm staple length, with a fibre diameter of 22.6 microns and upwards.


Strong wool Merino (22.5 microns and upwards) Photo © The Land


Poll Merino

The development of the Poll Merino is relatively new. Recessive poll genes are believed to have existed in the breed for many years and infusions of hornless sheep during the development of the Merino breed in Australia also left some poll genes within normal Merino flocks.

Poll rams have been selected and mated to Merino ewes and selection continued for the quality of pollness. The result is a pure Merino without horns.

Because the selection and development of the Poll Merino has been largely on a ‘within flock’ basis, this Merino type is scattered throughout the Merino areas of Australia, and is represented within all categories of Merino mentioned previously, i.e. fine, medium and strong wools.

Poll Merino

Reference

Handbook of Australian Livestock, Australian Meat & Livestock Corporation, 1989, 3rd Edition.

Photographs

Handbook of Australian Livestock, Australian Meat & Livestock Corporation, 1989, 3rd Edition.

(c) The Land


© The Australian Association
of Stud Merino Breeders Limited

The Australian Merino Centre
Level 2, RAS Administration Building
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Sydney Olympic Park NSW 2127

Telephone: 02 9763 2744
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E-mail: office@merinos.com.au