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For over 100 years our country’s economy was wrought from gold.

The gold that was mined from the ground and the gold that came from the golden fleeces of our unique strains of merino sheep. The common expression was that Australia rode on the sheep’s back.

John Macarthur is rightly credited as being the father of the wool industry in Australia but he was not the one who introduced them. That honour goes to Governor Hunter and closely followed by Governor Macquarie. Two naval officers, Capt. Henry Waterhouse and Lieut. William Kent were ordered by Governor Hunter to bring the first merino sheep to Australia. The sheep had come from a flock originally given by King Carlos III of Spain to Prince William V of Orange. In 1789 Prince William sent two rams and four ewes to the warmer climate of the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope under the care of Col. Robert Gordon. In 1791, Gordon returned the original breeding animals to the Netherlands but kept the offspring.

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In 1795 the British arrived at the Cape. Gordon handed over control and committed suicide when vilified as a traitor by his men. Two years later Gordon’s widow sold twenty-six merinos to Waterhouse and Kent for three pounds per head. The flock was split between their two ships, Reliance and Supply for transport back to Australia. En route half the sheep died but on arrival, John Macarthur, who had just resigned from the army to concentrate on farming, offered Waterhouse 15 guineas per head provided he could buy the lot. Waterhouse refused and sent them to his 55 hectare property, The Vineyard, on the Parramatta River. Eventually he distributed some to Macarthur, Rev. Samuel Marsden, Lieut. Kent and Capt. Thomas Rowley, a prominent landowner at Bankstown, Petersham and Concord.

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On the high road to Parramatta; an engraving from ‘An account of the English Colony in New South Wales’ by David Collins,
London, 1798

Merino sheep were a prize eagerly sought. The origins of the current strains of merino sheep began in Spain in the late 15th century. Prior to that English fine wools were the top quality but during the 16th century Spain overtook the English wools as the finest available. Spain built up a virtual monopoly of fine wool exports and the trade became a major revenue earner for that country.

Prior to the 18th century the export of merino sheep from Spain was a crime punishable by death. During the18th century some exportation to other European countries was allowed, mainly to relatives of the Spanish Royal family. The main recipients were to the king’s cousin, the Elector of Saxony in 1765 and 1774. Louis XVI of France received 366 sheep in 1786 and founded a stud at Rambouillet. These two strains were the foundation of all commercial merino flocks in the major wool producing countries today.The sheep brought to NSW from South Africa were all of the Rambouillet strain.

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One of the earliest depictions of a Merino. "El Buen Pastor" (The Good Shepherd) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650

When John Macarthur returned to Australia in 1805 he brought with him 7 rams and 1 ewe bought from a dispersal sale of a stud owned by King George III but due to his small numbers Macarthur’s sheep had little influence on the development of the breed in Australia. In 1810 Australia had 33,818 sheep. In 1812 Macarthur imported some Saxon Merinos from the Electoral flock in Saxony. These sheep became the nucleus of the ever-growing flocks that came from the opening up of the vast plains west of the Blue Mountains.

In 1826, a Scottish business man named John Furlong decided to move to Australia’s warmer climate for health reasons. He had noticed that wool from the Electorate of Saxony sold for much higher prices than wool from NSW. He and his wife decided that they would establish a new business in Australia raising sheep from this breed. They scoured the villages of Saxony and Prussia looking for the best types. Their two sons studied sheep breeding and wool classing. A flock of 100 sheep were selected and trans-shipped to Scotland for on shipment to NSW with the two sons. En route, the boys stopped at Tasmania and remained there with the sheep. John and his wife made two more trips through Saxony and Prussia buying more sheep to be sent to Tasmania where they joined their two sons. The wool industry of Tasmania was born.

By 1836 there were over 2,000,000 sheep in Australia and the dominance of Germany as the leading producer of fine wool was overcome mainly due to the German concentration on fineness rather than quantity. In 1845 Germany started importing wool from Australia. In 1841 a breeder in South Australia crossed some Camden Park (Macarthur) ewes with Furlongs Tasmanian rams. He then crossed these with

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English Leicesters to grow bigger sheep and tougher wool to withstand the abrasive sandy country. Thus the strain now known as South Australian Strong Wools was born.

By far the most significant development came in the 1860’s when the Peppin brothers of Wanganella Station near Deniliquin in the Riverina, set out to produce hardier sheep producing wool of longer staple and heavier fleeces. They selected 200 ewes that thrived under local conditions, bought 100 ewes from Cannally in South Australia sired by Rambouillet rams. They crossed these sheep with high quality Saxon and Rambouillet rams and also threw in some English Lincoln blood but the amount of Lincoln blood is not documented.

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The philosophy of the Peppin brothers was to develop a strain of sheep that thrived in the local conditions rather than something more exotic and fight the climate and soil conditions. They experimented on a small scale so that no serious loss was incurred by abandoning an unsuccessful joining. They formed a double stud carefully recording the results from each animal. The Peppin strain of merino is by far the most numerous and now accounts for approximately 70% of all merino flocks in Australia.

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George Peppin died in 1876. In 1878, the surviving brother Frederick, sold their whole operation. Their famous stud, South Boonoke, along with Wanganella and Long Plains, was sold for 77,000 pounds. North Boonoke Station was sold to a partnership lead by F.S Falkiner for 67,000 pounds. These properties measured 64,341 acres and included 55,793 sheep and remain today among the top sheep studs in the world.

 

Franc Falkiner bought out his partners in 1882 and developed the stud from the original Peppin stock. When he died in 1909 he had amassed over 500,000 acres and 2,000,000 Boonoke blood sheep. In 1958 F.S.Falkiner & Sons purchased the original Wanganella , South Boonoke and Long Plains studs along with the Boonoke Poll stud started in 1934. These studs remain intact today but are a far cry from the days of the Peppin breeding experiments. Today the properties run nearly 80,000 breeding ewes, 4,000 Hereford breeding cows, 22,000 hectares of broad acre dryland cropping and 11,000 hectares of irrigated cropping.

In 1971, F.S.Falkiner & Sons Pty.Ltd. was purchased by an English company, Cleckheaton (Yorkshire) Ltd.

In 1978 it was again sold to News Corporation Ltd whose chief executive, Rupert Murdoch wanted to return this iconic enterprise to Australian ownership. Finally, in 2000 it was again sold to its present owner, Australian Food & Agriculture Limited.

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In those days before the development of scientific breeding techniques such as artificial insemination and embryo transplants breeding of domesticated animals was a very slow process dictated entirely by the passage of nature together with meticulous observation and recording by breeders. It was a process measured in years of trial and error punctuated by many disappointments.

Breeding was not the only factor present in the production of top class fleece. Feeding and the timing of lambing were also very important to avoid production of “tender” fleeces. A tender fleece is one where there has been an interruption to the wool growth creating a weak point in the fibre which causes it to break during spinning. Thus condition is brought about by a variety of factors including lambing of ewes, drought or other interruption to consistent food intake or poor animal health. Tender fleeces are downgraded in price and are able to be identified at the time of shearing when the fleeces are being handled on the skirting tables.

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The national merino flock is broadly divided into three distinct types. The largest by far is the Peppin strain. The South Australian Strong Wools are found mainly in the more arid regions where sandy dust is a problem with the finer wools and finally there is the Saxon strain which produces by far the finest and best wools and these flocks are found in the harshest cold parts of the country such as Tasmania, the New England high country and parts of Western Victoria.

Today the national merino flock is a shadow of its former self from the days before such developments as synthetic fibres and internal heating made inroads into the use of wool. It now measures about 68,000,000. With the sharp rise in demand and price, many wool producers have switched to meat production and breeds other than merinos. In the dryer parts of the country however wool remains supreme.

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Washing wool at Enngonia Bore, near Bourke, published by Kerry and Co, Australia, 1884-1917, MAAS Collection 85/1284-141

In the halcyon days of the 19th and 20th centuries wool production spawned a vast array of industry in regional towns and cities with wool scouring works and knitting mills which were the mainstay of many large regional towns. Textile manufacturing was a large employer of labour, particularly female labour. Today such famous names as Onkaparinga blankets, Warrnambool Woollen Mills with its Fletcher Jones brand of trousers and suits. Wangaratta Woollen Mills with its miles of fine fabric, Seymour Woollen Mills with its beautiful fine knitted woollen wear and countless others now relics of a bygone era thanks to the ravages of our industrial relations regimes that have rendered them uncompetitive with foreign labour.

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People shop at Fletcher Jones' Chadstone Shopping centre store in the 1960s.

Like many other once uniquely Australian industries, we have lost control of our unique product thanks to the wisdom of latter day leaders who think they know better and lack the steel and determination of our forefathers who created them from nothing in the first place.

Nevertheless, wool is still the outstanding product for good clean natural warmth. It is without peer and is the best protection one can have to guard against catching the coronavirus by keeping one’s self well rugged up and warm at all times.

No other country in the world has developed a system for the handling, selling and presentation of its wool clip that matches Australia. 25% of the entire world wool clip is produced in Australia and there are over 1,000 types listed in the AWC catalogue.

 

 

 

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