In Australia, no breed is more prolific than Merinos. Purebred Merinos make up 80 percent of the total sheep population in the country, with different strains of Merino distributed throughout Australia.
Merino sheep originally come from Spain. There are thought to be three Merino breeds that constituted the foundation stock for most of the world's Merino flocks; the Royal Escurial, the Negretti and the Paula. Before the 1700's, it was illegal to export Merino sheep from Spain. After the turn of the 18th century however, stock was exported to other European countries. Gradually, Merinos were imported to other continents, heavily influencing the development of other breeds along the way.
Merino sheep are primarily distinguished by the quality of the wool they provide. Many deem it to be the finest and softest wool available in the market. Both horned and polled strains exist, depending on the preference of the breeder. Ultra-fine Merino wool is ideal for blending with other exclusive fibres such as silk and cashmere. Medium merino wool is the most common in Australia and is suitable for light suiting and knitwear. Strong Merino wool is usually blended with polyester and other acrylic fabrics for the manufacturing of middle-weight suiting and automobile and aircraft seating. Merino sheep are known for their foraging abilities and adaptability. As they are bred primarily for wool, their carcase tends to be smaller in size than those sheep bred for meat. Merino sheep produce a fine, crimped, soft wool, typically less than 24 microns.
The Australian Merino, although a descendant of the Spanish Merino, is considered a distinct breed in its own right. Its development has been influenced by Australian-specific conditions. Initially, Australia received Merino sheep from Cape Colony, England, Saxony, France and America. Different Merino types are distributed throughout the country, with the four basic strains including Peppin Merino, Saxon Merino, South Australian Merino and Spanish Merino.
Peppin Merinos were developed by the Peppin brothers of Deniliquin in the 1860's. Their development was influenced by Spanish and French bloodlines. It is widely accepted that most current Australian Merino flocks have been influenced by the Peppin sheep. Peppin Merinos are predominantly found in Queensland, and higher rainfall areas of Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. As far as Merino wool qualities go, Peppin is considered to be ‘mid-range.' Its high wool grease content serves a protective function, and also accounts for the creamy colour of Peppin sheep. Some Peppin Merino rams have the capacity to produce around 20 kilograms of wool.
Saxon Merino are typically located in wetter, higher rainfall areas, especially around Southern Australia. Saxon Merino's constitute the smallest of the Merino strains, usually cutting only 5 kilograms of fleece. Saxon wool is particularly conducive to cloth making due to its brightness, softness, fineness and whiteness.
South Australian Merinos were developed to perform well in the more arid, pastoral South Australian environments, and other locations with similar conditions in Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. South Australian Merinos are typically larger than the other Merino strains, with looser skin and heavier make-ups. Their fleece tends to be the most coarse, with the highest degree of natural grease.
Spanish Merinos, as the name suggests, refers to those Merinos in Australia that are descendants of the Spanish Merino stock brought into Australia. They produce similar fleece weights to those of the Peppin Merino and are generally distributed in similar climatic zones.
The Border/Merino cross is also highly prolific in Australia. It is developed using Border Leicester rams over Merino ewes. This cross produces a highly efficient sheep, with a good quality carcase, high fertility levels and decent milk production. Their wool is also considered to be very good quality.
The Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders Limited is the official registry and information service for Merino breeders across Australia.