For some 12,000 years the sheep was a wild
animal roaming the countryside and
continues to do so in some parts of the world, then
man and the sheep developed a symbiotic relationship
- man protected the sheep from predators, while the
sheep provided man with food and clothing.
Sheep first evolved in Eurasia
in the early Pleistocene period around 1,000,000 years
ago. Domestication of the sheep took place in South
West Asia at the foothills of the Zargos Mountains as
early as 9,000 B.C.
There are still 4 types of wild sheep running around
today: the Urial in South-West Asia, the Argali in Central
Asia, the Mouflon in the central islands of the Mediterranean
and the Bighorn in the Rocky Mountains of North America.
The ancient Egyptians regarded their rams as sacred
and through a series of stages mummified them.
The first archaeological remains of domestic sheep
were discovered in Swiss lake dwellings belonging to
the New Stone Age (ie. 2000 years B.C.) in 1861.
In the Middle Ages the Spanish regarded their Merino
sheep as prizes or gifts which rarely left the country
and were jealously guarded from other countries.
The first sheep reached the United Kingdom about 3000
B.C. when the Stone Age settlers were crossing the English
Various regions had native sheep which gradually developed
in particular breeds, but it was not until the 18th
Century there were definite breed descriptions and illustrations.
By 1800 there were approximately 20 different breeds
from which nearly double that number has grown today.
According to the Domesday Survey, made following the
Norman Conquest in 1066, showed there were more sheep
in the country than all other livestock put together.
Their function was to provide the people with milk,
wool, manure, meat and by-products.
During the early Bronze Age period the sheep lost the
pigment in its face and coat.
The first fat-tail sheep was depicted as early as 2000
B.C. The first fat-tailed sheep into Australia arrived
in 1788 with the First Fleet, while the first merino
arrived in 1797 with only 13 sheep being purchased from
Some of these sheep were sold to John Macarthur and
Samuel Marsden, two notable pioneers of the wool industry.
They began selective breeding by crossing their Merinos
with other breeds in the colony.
On his arrival in 1800, Governor King saw the potential
and benefit to the colony in producing wool. His vision
led to the establishment of a textile industry with
the setting up of the first wool mill at Parramatta.
The Australian Sheep Flock
The Australian rural landscape is uniquely suited to
sheep, with our relatively mild climate extending over
vast areas of natural grassland. Wool production is
this country's largest and most important form of land
use, with some 70,000 woolgrowing properties spread
in a continuous crescent from the north of Queensland
to the mid-north of Western Australia and including
Tasmania and the Islands of Bass Strait.
Individual flocks range from a few hundred to as many
as 100,000 or more animals, with some three quarters
of all sheep run in flocks of 3,000 or more.
The Australian sheep flock now numbers 115.8 million
head (at 2000). Other significant sheep flocks are found
in China (131 million), New Zealand (45 Million) South
Africa (30 million) and Turkey (28 million).
Apart from its size, the outstanding feature of the
Australian sheep flock is the overwhelming influence
of a single breed - the Australian Merino - which is
grazed primarily for its heavy fleeces of fine quality
wool. More than 80 percent of all Australian sheep are
pure Merino with most of the remainder at least part
Though the Australian Merino derives its name and basic
appearance from the famed Royal Flocks of Spain, it
is in every way a distinct breed in its own right, developed
and adapted in Australia to the specific conditions
of this country.