Australia ~ Days of Golden Fleece

Reproduced from Australian Encyclopaedia, circa 1950

The Spacious Days

The 1880s and the early 1890s were, in many ways, the most spacious days of Australian sheep history, particularly in regard to Merinos

Stations were vast, flocks were large, the pastoral company exercised a tremendous influence in the land, and the squatter was almost a legendary figure in the minds of many people.

In the 189Os sheep totals exceeded the hundred million mark for the first time, reaching 106,421,000 in 1891.

In 1895 there were approximately 40 stations in New South Wales shearing more than 100,000 sheep annually. The largest were Momba (285,000 sheep), Dunlop (276,000), Burrawang (273,000), Toorale (261,000), Mahonga (242,000) and Midkin (226,000). In Queensland, at the time, even larger totals were put through at the annual shearing. Wellshot shore 356,000 sheep, Bowen Downs 316,000, Milo 250,000, Darr River Downs 241,000, and Evesham 228,000.

Unfortunately many properties were overstocked and when there was a series of bad seasons, culminating in the drought of 1902, losses were extremely heavy. Sheep figures drifted from 100,411,000 in 1894 to 53,675,000 in 1902. A sharp drop in wool prices that occurred in 1893, followed by a general financial depression, added to the difficulties experienced by pastoralists during this period.

Twentieth Century

Since the turn of the century the most notable features of the industry have been:

  • Development of wool-production on increasingly smaller areas, a trend which has led to considerable changes in sheep types and breeds, and in the quality and character of Australian wools
  • Improvement of the individual sheep to produce more complete covering of the animal and a cleaner and weightier fleece
  • Better subdivision, pasture improvement, and mechanization of properties to improve carrying capacity
  • Organized elimination of animal diseases and pests, in which the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (q.v.) has played a vital part
  • Better organization of the wool market and the introduction of measures to meet changing fashions and the competition of artificial fibres.

The various influences on the industry are reflected in the fluctuations of sheep numbers and wool-production.

Sheep Numbers

In 1902 the total of sheep (53,675,000) was the lowest for 24 years. A remarkable recovery was made during the ensuing eight years and by 1910 there were 98,066,000 sheep in the country. Drought and war were responsible for some setbacks in the following few years and in 1915 flocks were down to 73,146,000. Fluctuating improvement followed, and in 1925 the Australian total again exceeded the hundred million mark the first time for 31 years.

Numbers continued to rise, with some minor setbacks, to 125,189,000 in 1941. Dry years were responsible for heavy losses in the following five years and numbers fell by nearly 30,000,000 to 95,723,000 in 1946. A series of good seasons, high wool prices, and a reduction in rabbit numbers due to myxomatosis in the ensuing ten years encouraged sheep- breeding, and in 1956 there were more than 136,000,000 sheep in Australia, the greatest number in its history.

Wool Production

Wool-production naturally follows the rise and fall in sheep totals, although over the years there has been a general increase in individual fleece-weight ratio.

In 1860 Australia produced 58,991,000 pounds of greasy wool. The peak for the century was in 1891 when approximately 106,000,000 sheep grew 634,046,000 pounds of greasy wool. Production topped the 1,000,000,000-pound level for the first time in 1931-2, and generally stayed there in succeeding years, reaching 1,409,764,000 pounds (estimated) in 1955-6.

The great increase in the weight of fleece has been one of the notable achievements of the Australian sheep industry. In 1860 the average yield per sheep was around 3 lb.; in 1880 it was between 5 and 6 lb.; and in 1920 between 8 and 9 lb. The increase in weight is the result, not only of the lengthening of the staple, but also of the improvement of the covering of the sheep.

In the 19th century the belly and the legs of the animal were generally bare whereas with the modern Merino practically every part carries wool. The trend reflects the overall improvement of Australian sheep-husbandry, particularly in such things as water conservation, pasture improvement, and the eradication of the rabbit.

In their desire to improve the sheep and their wool, studmasters have paid high prices for quality stock.

Prices

As early as 1825 a Merino ram was sold by John Macarthur for £300 – a considerable sum in those days – and prices for stud stock have tended to rise with the passage of years. In 1927 Boonoke station, Riverina, paid 5000 guineas for a ram, David of Dalkeith, a record price that was unbeaten until a Bundemar ram, named Charles Qointus, was sold to Vitonga station, N.S.W., for 6000 guineas.

Less spectacular, but just as valuable, is the work that is constantly being carried on with other notable studs such as Coonong, Egelabra, Haddon Rig, Uardry, Wanganella, and Willandra in New South Wales, Strathdarr (Queensland), Collinsyule (South Australia) and Valleyfleld and Kenilworth (Tasmania).

These properties in the Merino field have served the sheepbreeding industry for many years by supplying blood strains of high quality to suit various Australian conditions, and they have played an important part in the improvement of the wool-clip. Studs breeding Corriedales and English breeds of sheep are serving the industry in an equally worthy fashion.

Property and Flock Sizes

The size of individual sheep-holdings and flocks has fallen progressively since the 1890s.

The movement for closer settlement, particularly after the two world wars, has resulted in many of the larger estates being subdivided and sold. Whereas in 1895 there were in New South Wales at least 40 stations shearing more than 100,000 sheep, by 1948 there were only two flocks of this size left in the whole of Australia.

In the early 1950s the most numerous flock was in the 500-1000 group, followed closely by that in the 250-500 group. There were 15 flocks of 50,000-100,000 sheep; 196 of 20,000-50,000; 738 of 10,000-20,000.

This reduction in size of properties and flocks has affected the sheep and wool industry in a number of ways.

It has encouraged the production of a farm type, dual-purpose sheep; it has altered the character of the wool-clip, decreasing the proportion of Merino wool and increasing comeback and crossbred types; and it has been responsible for the introduction of bulk classing of clips at central stores in place of individual classing in the shearing shed.

Export of Merinos

Before 1929 studmasters were free to sell Merinos to any country, and a considerable export trade was developing.

In that year, following shipments of Merino rams to Russia and South Africa, it was feared that these and other countries might build up a fine-wool industry that would be detrimental to Australia, and a ban on the export of Merinos was imposed. The ban was gazetted on 28th November 1929 and is in keeping with the Customs Act 1901-25 which states that “the Governor-General may, by proclamation, prohibit the exportation of any goods the exportation of which would, in his opinion, be harmful to the Commonwealth.”

This ban has been vigorously opposed by a section of the sheep industry, particularly stud- breeders. Opponents of the ban maintain that by restricting the breeding of fine-wool sheep the manufacture of synthetic fibres is encouraged – a development which, in the long run, must harm the wool industry.

Supporters of the ban fear, however, that the improvement of Merino flocks abroad would mean the end of Australia’s dominance in the industry. The issue is one that is warmly contested at every meeting of farmers and graziers organizations, but 26 years after its imposition the ban was still in force.