Importance of Wool
Wool production is one of Australia’s largest and most important forms of land use, with some 30,000 wool growing properties spread in a continuous crescent from the north of Queensland to the mid-north of Western Australia, Tasmania and the Islands of Bass Strait.
The production of wool is well suited to our climate and conditions producing fine, good length of staple and a soft quality making it particularly suitable for processing into material for the cloth industry. Wool is measured in microns,19 microns and less would be considered suitable for the production of a fine quality cloth used for suits and fine wool garments. A substantial proportion of wool from other wool producing countries is of a stronger harsher handling quality and is used for carpets rugs and other courser materials.
The first sheep to arrive in Australia came with the First fleet in 1788. By the end of that year all but one had been slaughtered for food or had died.
Credit for the introduction of the the Spanish Merino goes to Captains Waterhouse and Kent who were sent by Governor Hunter to the Cape of Good Hope in 1796 to buy cattle. There Captain Phillip Gidley King on his way home to England, persuaded them to buy 26 sheep of Spanish Merino blood. A number of them died on the voyage back to Australia. On arrival Captain Macarthur immediately offered to buy all the surviving sheep for 15 guineas per head. The offer was refused and it was not until later that a few sheep were distributed to Macarthur, the Reverend Marsden and others.
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, adapted to the specific conditions of this country. In 1804 Macarthur made a further very important purchase of 7 Spanish fine wool Merino rams and 1 ewe from King George 111, who had been able to obtain these sheep from Spain in exchange for some Flemish horses. By skillful breeding and selection, he evolved the first Australian bred pure Merino sheep. Meanwhile Captain Waterhouse sold out in 1810 to Captain William Cox who had considerable grazing interests in the colony.
Using Merinos and other breeds from Europe, North America and New Zealand, a few great Australian pioneer breeders, like Thomas Shaw, George Peppin and others in South Australia, between 1850 and 1880 re-created the famous short-stapled Spanish fine-wool sheep into completely new domestic sheep strains, which were now larger and with longer but fine and medium wool. This enabled the wool to be combed on the new industrial machines of Europe. This saved the global wool textile industry from being swamped by cotton and led to Australia becoming the largest and most famous wool economy the world had ever seen.
It is understood that the first wool export from Australia was shipped in Barrels by Macarthur in 1807. It was sold in Garraways Coffee House just off Cornhill in London and is said to have fetched 124 pence per pound. Garraways was a venue where businessmen of the day congregated and all manner of goods were auctioned there.
Within four decades Australia had become the world’s biggest producer, and its production grew in step with the industrialisation of leading European nations and also the USA.
At the end of 1980s the Australian sheep flock numbered 172 million head. Difficult economic conditions and severe drought caused the sheep numbers to fall to a low of 98 million head in 2004. Continuing drought condition have further depleted those numbers.
The Present Day Merino
The most notable feature of the Australian sheep flock is the overwhelming influence of the Australian Merino which is bred primarily for its heavy fleeces of fine quality wool. More than 80% of all Australian sheep are pure Merino with most of the remainder being part Merino.
Away from their native Spain the Merino changed due to differing climate conditions and selection pressures applied by breeders in different countries. The sheep from Saxony were noted for their magnificence fleeces, being extremely fine and white in appearance, while the French had concentrated on carcass development. Such differences are to be seen in the present day Merino, which is not a single homogeneous breed but a number of strains all of which are uniquely Australian. The Australian Merinos that we now know fall into 3 strains; Peppin, South Australian and fine-wool Saxon.
The areas surrounding Goulburn are ideally suited to sheep with our relatively mild climate and vast areas of natural grasslands. William Faithful arrived on the Goulburn plains to establish Springfield in the winter of 1828. In the 1820s, the Goulburn District was on the edge of pastoral settlement. The same year Faithful took up Springfield, Governor Darling noted the great promise of the Australian wool industry in the following statement made to Right Honorable W Huskisson, 10 April 1828:
The unlimited extent of ungranted land, the abundance and goodness of the natural grasses, and the favourable nature of the climate for the production of wool, added to the comparatively higher proportion of labour and expense essential to the cultivation of the soil, have a naturally attracted a great majority of the capital and intelligence in the colony to grazing.