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.  Reliable DNA tests are fast becoming a reality, and 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.

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.


Fine Wool Types

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Fine wool types are used in men’s and women’s fashions, and these sheep 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 medium-sized frame that produces a soft, bright fleece with high crimp frequency.

Ultrafine Wool

Ultrafine wool is the finest wool fibre in the world.  Extra Ultrafine is in the micron range of 16.0 and finer.  Ultrafine is in the micron range of 16.1-17.5.  Breeders concentrating on extra fine microns can produce 13.5 micron bales, and even a few below that. These ultrafine Merino wools in the range of 12.5-17.5 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 for both men and women. 

Superfine Wool

Superfine wool has a fibre diameter of 17.6-18.5 microns.

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Fine wool has a fibre diameter of 18.6-19.5 microns.

Fine-Medium Wool

Fine-Medium wool is in the micron range 19.6-20.5. This micron range has become 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.

Medium Wool

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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, used mainly for light suiting and knitwear. Medium wool is harder wearing and is also used in the commercial sector of the consumer chain. 

Medium wool has a fibre diameter of 20.6-22.5 microns. Staple length is approximately 90 to 115 mm.

Strong Wool

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Strong wool types are most prominent in western New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.

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. Stronger wool sheep are hardier sheep for the tougher environments.  They produce a heavy cutting fleece of around 100 mm staple length, with a fibre diameter of 22.6 microns and upwards.

Strong wools are harder wearing and are predominantly used in blending with polyester and acrylic fibres to produce cheaper middle-weight suiting fabrics and jersey wool.  They are also used in fabrics for the automobile and aircraft sector for seating and interior wall covering.  Designers are now making greater use of these materials as wall covering in buildings.

Poll Merino

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Recessive poll genes are believed to have existed in the Merino breed for many years and, during the development of the Merino breed in Australia, hornless male lambs were commonly referred to as ‘sports’. These were selected and mated to Merino ewes with selection continuing for the quality of pollness. The result is a pure Merino without horns – the Poll Merino Breed.

The Poll Boonoke Merino Stud was formed in 1934 by the late Otway Falkiner and this is recognised as the first attempt to establish the Poll Merino commercially. See the extract below from Golden Fleeces II by Tim Hewat:

“Then in 1934, Otway Falkiner, who had just turned sixty, embarked upon his greatest contribution to the Australian wool industry: the establishment of the Boonoke Poll Merino flock and stud. He observed that out of the total Boonoke ram drop of nearly nine thousand there were thirteen ‘sports’ which had no horns; from these he selected eight which were strong and exactly true to type except they were polled. The next year he put them over four hundred selected Boonoke ewes. The polled progeny excited him and he saw several advantages in them: they were quicker to mature, they were less susceptible to blowfly strike in the head, they were able to forage further for food because there were freed of 7 or 8 pounds of horn weight and, most important of all, they could not get horns caught in fences or bushes; they were, in a phrase, easy-care sheep. When they were first offered for sale in 1937 they helped push Boonoke ram sales for the year to 9607, second only to the record year of 1925”.

The Poll Merino Breeders’ Association of Australia (PMBA) was formed in 1956, and Otway Falkiner’s contribution was acknowledged by registering Boonoke as Poll Flock No. 1, which remains registered to this day. The first separate section for Poll Merinos in the Australian Stud Merino Flock Register appeared in Volume XXXIV (34) in 1957. The PMBA continued to administer the Association until it was disbanded in 1977. Since then, the AASMB has maintained the Poll Merino section in the Flock Register.

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 bloodlines of Merino mentioned previously, i.e. fine, medium and strong wool types.