The Australian Merino is not a single homogenous breed, but a variety of sheep strains, all of which are distinctly Australian, irrespective of their origins. The need for environmental suitability has been the major factor deciding the production of the Merino. In this or any other region, very few, if any, domestic animals have shown such resilience or reacted to Australia’s enormous variations in climatic conditions, management and husbandry techniques with such flexibility and success. The pioneer breeders set up the base of the Australian Merino through skilful breeding and selection.
Today, in future decision-making, digital technology plays an integral role. Stud breeders provide objective measurements which, when combined with subjective evaluation, help identify the genetic traits of an animal. Reliable DNA tests are increasingly becoming a reality, and potential extensions of these techniques include sexed semen and development of invitro fertilised embryos produced from eggs taken from young lambs with semen insemination and embryo transfer now a routine operation.
Four basic strands of Merino Sheep are there
This strain is so significant that sheepmen sometimes identify their sheep simply as either Peppin, or non-Peppin, throughout Australia. In 1861, near Deniliquin, in the Riverina, the Peppin brothers founded the “Wanganella” sheep stud. Although it is not possible to tell exactly what route they followed in the creation of the Merino strain that now bears their name, it seems clear that they introduced Merinos of both Spanish and French origin. Now widely recognised as one of the most significant events in the creation of the Peppin stud, the influence of a single French ‘Rambouillet’ ram, called Emperor, makes this ram the outstanding sire in the history of the wool industry in the country.
As many as 70% of the Australian Merinos of today are claimed to be directly descended from the sheep produced by Peppin.
Today’s Peppin Merino is valued for its ability to survive in drier inland areas, where it is an effective forager with its large frame and long legs. Its thick fleece falls within the mid-range of the qualities of Merino wool and is covered by a comparatively high content of natural wool grease from environmental excesses, which can be seen as a creamy colour in the wool.
In the sheep flocks of Queensland, on the slopes and plains of NSW, through the north of Victoria and the mixed farming regions of South Australia and Western Australia, the Peppin Merino is especially prevalent. The strain is so adaptable, however, that it can also be found in large numbers in Victoria, Tasmania and NSW’s higher rainfall areas.
Soon after settlement, the Merino sheep imported into Australia were able to produce a creamy fleece of 1 1/2 – 2 kg. Every single year. By comparison, today’s Peppin Merino stud ram can produce up to 18 kg. And it is not uncommon for commercial animals of this breed to produce up to 10 kg or more of wool. Every year, of wool.
Merino of South Australia
While the Peppin sheep were established for the temperate climate of the slopes and plains and especially for the Riverina, in the arid pastoral conditions found in much of that state, South Australian Merinos were specifically bred to survive and provide an economic return from wool.
In these districts, rainfall is mostly 250 mm per year or less in the vicinity, and plants such as saltbush (Attriplex spp.) form a major part of the natural vegetation.
Physically, the South Australian Merino is the biggest of the Merino sheep strains in this region. They are usually longer, taller and heavier than the Peppin forms, and tend to have less loose skin than other strains, in the form of skin wrinkles.
At the best (i.e. thickest in fibre diameter) end of the spectrum of types of Merino wool is the wool from these sheep. It also appears to bear a higher proportion of natural grease, which breeders have specifically tried to protect the fibre in the most adverse conditions of grazing.
Apart from South Australia, in the pastoral regions of Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales, this strain of Merino is present in large numbers.
Saxon Merino sheep are found exclusively in southern Australia’s higher rainfall area, particularly in the highlands of Tasmania, the cooler and wetter regions of Victoria, and the New South Wales tablelands. Just as these climatic and pastoral conditions contrast with those where the Merino is found in South Australia, the sheep also do so in almost every respect.
Physically the smallest of the Merino types, cutting the lowest wool weight (3-6 kg.), the Saxon Merino is unparalleled in the quality of wool produced, e.g. 3 kilos will be cut by a sheep producing 14 microns and up to 6 kilos by a sheep producing 17.5 microns.
In particular, this wool is extremely bright and white in colour, soft to hold, and fine in diameter (i.e. narrow). Such characteristics make this wool coveted for the best quality and most costly cloths it can produce by the textile industry.
There is a distinct strain of the Australian Merino that is directly descended from Merino sheep of ‘Spanish’ blood introduced into the colony, albeit relatively few in number.
After opening up the drier inland and pushing the Spanish blood sheep away from the coast, major advances were made in body size and wool weights. Today, body weights and fleece weights of the same magnitude as the Peppin strain are achieved by these sheep and are often found in the same climate zones.
By crossing the Spanish Merino with the Saxons, the modern day superfine/fine wool sheep has been established. The explanation for the cross is to get the extra wool cut and body size from the Spanish merino and the finer micron and full body coverage in the wool from the Saxon sheep, as well as a more developed crimp. And down to the knees, where other breeds do not have the same leg covering, Saxon sheep have wool coverage. This sheep enabled the sheep breeder to reduce the average fibre diameter of their clip and raise their wool weights.
In men’s and women’s fashions, fine wool styles are used, and these sheep are found mostly in New South Wales’ northern and southern tableland regions, Victoria’s western and southern districts, and Tasmania’s midlands. They are characterised by a medium-sized frame with a high crimp frequency that produces a fluffy, bright fleece.
Ultrafine Wool by Wool
The finest wool fibre in the world is ultrafine wool. In the micron scale of 16.0 and finer, Extra Ultrafine is. In the micron range of 16.1-17.5, Ultrafine is 13.5 micron bales can be produced by breeders focusing on extra fine microns, and even a few below that. These ultrafine merino wools in the 12.5-17.5 range are very suitable for blending with other exclusive fibres, such as silk and cashmere, to produce high-quality fabrics for both men and women in the exclusive fashion industry.
Fine-Medium wool is 19.6-20.5 in the micron range. Due to breeders achieving their objective of growing a finer micron and retaining their fleece weights comparable to the medium Merino, this micron range has become a very large section of the Australian Merino breeding industry. In a commercial situation of 5 to 8 kilos, with a staple length of 85 to 110 mm, these sheep are capable of cutting weights.
The key representative of the Merino breed is the medium wool varieties, which are found in extremely large numbers in the vast pastoral areas of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.
The sheep are broad framed and relatively plain bodied, providing a thick fleece used mostly for light suiting and knitwear that is soft to handle and of good colour. In the industrial field of the consumer chain, medium wool is tougher to wear and is often used.
The fibre diameter of the medium wool is 20.6-22.5 microns. The length of the staple is about 90 to 115 mm
In western New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, heavy wool styles are the most common.
The strong wool Merino has adapted itself to Australia’s hot, dry, semi-arid regions in particular. For semi-arid areas, the strain is very wide framed, straight bodied and open faced, making it an especially ‘easy care’ sheep. For the harder conditions, better wool sheep are harder sheep. They manufacture a strong cutting fleece with a staple length of about 100 mm, a fibre diameter of 22.6 microns and upwards.
Solid wools are harder to wear and are primarily used to manufacture cheaper medium-weight suiting fabrics and jersey wool for mixing with polyester and acrylic fibres. They are also used in seating and interior wall covering fabrics for the automotive and aircraft industries. In homes, designers are now making better use of these materials as wall coverings.
Recessive poll genes are thought to have existed for many years in the Merino breed and hornless male lambs have been widely referred to as ‘games’ during the growth of the Merino breed in Australia. This were picked and mated to Merino ewes, with pollen quality selection continuing. A pure Merino without horns – the Poll Merino Breed – is the result.
The Poll Boonoke Merino Stud was established by the late Otway Falkiner in 1934 and is regarded as the first att att.