Sheep production is man's oldest organized industry. Wool was the first commodity of sufficient value to warrant international trade.
The animal was first domesticated in central Asia around 10,000 years ago and is credited with helping to make the spread of civilization possible. Man quickly realized that sheep could provide two of life's essentials: warmth and food. This allowed settlers in then Mesopotamia to travel and live in colder climates.
The earliest sheep growers used their fleeces as a kind of tunic. It wasn't until 3500 BC that man learned to spin wool. This eventually led to large-scale production of wool, particularly in England, where the textile industry grew enormously in later centuries.
Sheep arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788. A key moment came in 1797 when an English Army officer brought a batch a Merino rams and ewes to Sydney. The famous Australian Merino breed descended from this small flock. Other notable breeds common in Australia include Polworth, Corriedale and Bond sheep.
At the last official count in 2008, Australian sheep numbers had fallen by 10 per cent to 76.9 million - their lowest level since 1920. This was a result of continued difficult seasons due to drought and generally low wool prices, with sheep and lamb numbers falling in all states. New South Wales has the highest concentration of sheep, followed by Western Australia.
Sheep are big business in Australia. The country is the leading producer of wool in the world, accounting for around 25 per cent of global woolclip and accounts for approximately 10 per cent of world production. Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), a producer owned company, leads research and development for the industry, while Australian wool is marketed by the Woolmark company.
Meanwhile, Australia is the second-biggest lamb exporter in the world, with the trade contributing $800 million to the economy in 2007-08. It exported more than 100,000 tons of lamb and over 80,000 tons of mutton last year, with the U.S. the biggest buyer. The country also exported more than 2 million live animals in 2009, with Middle Eastern countries the primary market.
However, the industry is currently facing significant difficulties. The nation's largest sheep-meat exporters have slashed production and shed staff as the robust Australian dollar, a declining sheep flock and increased demand for live exports place the industry under unprecedented pressure.