of the Merino, Australia, in less than one hundred
years, passed frombeing a disposal ground for English
convicts, to one of the most important members of
the British Commonwealth."
The Wool Trade, Past and Present - K.G. Ponting
Merino sheep were first brought to Australia from the
Cape Colony, and then from a number of other countries
where the famed "Spanish sheep" (as the were widely
known) had gained prominence by the early years of the
nineteenth century - notably England, Saxony (S E Germany),
France and America.
Away from their native Spain the Merino changed
due to differing climate conditions and selection pressures
applied by breeders in the different countries. Thus
the sheep from Saxony were noted for the magnificence
of their fleece, being extremely fine and white in appearance,
while the French had concentrated on carcass development
with less attention to wool quality. Such differences
are to be seen today in the Australian Merino, which
is not a single homogenous breed but a number of "strains"
of sheep all of which, regardless of their origins,
are uniquely Australian. In the development of the great
Australian sheep flocks, Merinos of all types were introduced,
and through selection and crossbreeding, and with particular
attention to the impact of the environment on both animal
and fleece, the Australian Merinos that we now know
The four basic strains are: Peppin, Saxon, South Australian,
So important is this strain that sheep men throughout
Australia often classify their sheep as being either
Peppin, or non-Peppin. The "Waganella" 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 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 history.
As many as 70 percent of today's Australian Merinos
are said to be directly descended from the Peppin-developed
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 fleeces of 1( - 2 kg.
each year. By way of contrast, a Peppin Merino stud
ram of today may produce up to 20 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.
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 tablelands of New South Wales. Just
as these climactic 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 in wool (4-5kg.), the Saxon Merino
is without peer in the quality of wool produced. 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
Superfine Saxon Merino wool normally commands distinct
price premium in the market.
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
Rainfall in these districts is mostly in the vicinity
of 250mm per year or less, and plants such as the saltbush
(Attriplex spp.) make up a large part of the natural
The South Australian 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 coarsest (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
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.
Though relatively few in number there is a distinct
strain of the Australian Merino which is directly descended
from Merino sheep of "Spanish" blood imported into the
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 climactic zones.
The "Border/Merino" Crossbred
In terms of sheer weight of numbers, the second most
populous breed of sheep in this country comprises the
ewe progeny from Border Leicester rams mated to Merino
The "Border/Merino" ewes produced in this way offer
the greatest overall performance when breeding meat
type sheep, with well proportioned carcass, high fertility,
robust constitution and good milk production (important
in promoting rapid growth in their lambs).
Another feature of the "Border/Merino" is its fleece
of fine crossbred wool which, although not as heavy
or valuable as for pure Merino, is still an important
contributor to overall financial returns from these
To Produce prime quality table meats "Border/Merino"
ewes are mated to "Downs" breed rams (e.g. Poll Dorset
or Southdown), the lambs from this mating being ideal
in carcass shape and having the ability to grow to market
weights very rapidly.
Of the lambs slaughtered for meat in Australia, the
vast majority of these would have been bred in the above