I first met sheep as an antipodal child on a vast dry continent in a previous century.
Following a great war, as Europe and Asia rebuilt themselves, this isolated British colony breathed a collective sigh of relief and resumed rounding up sheep.
Though nervous at the impending return of so many unrequited soldiers, sheep plied on, destroying habitat (under strict orders to) and breeding with abandon. Twenty five years later 180 million fleece-accoutred ovines – about seven for each strapping Aussie male – flocked thousands a time variously between paddocks.
In those carefree Boy-Like-Smiley childhood days it was unlikely (foreigners are surprised to learn) to bump into a woolly comrade in the street. Like native Australians, kangaroos, and koalas, sheep were shy of townsfolk.
But there was another way of introduction, in parts, so to speak – at least for urchins in the know.
A marvellous Australian company named “Crusader” began my platonic love affair with our follicled scorched-earth root-nibblers.
Crusader was, we nowadays say, a vertically-integrated value-adding outfit that refined wool to produce cloth, and from that, clothes.
My school trousers and pullover (or “jumper,” so named because kangaroos were fond of them) were branded “Stamina, by Crusader Cloth”, and proud of them I was! We all were, us kids from down under.
For school projects we shiny-eyed beggars wrote to the cherished Crusader Cloth and Stamina conglomerates requesting a sample kit. Post-war was an austere time with manufactured goods excruciatingly expensive and children commonly at school in bare feet.
Those innocent carefree days – drinking free milk at morning breaks, peanut butter on white bread for lunch, romping in the ash pits of the local lead smelter after school. Paradise.
When our sample kits arrived from Crusader (or the latest card collection from Stamina) it was the most wonderful thing a child could possess.
Sheep! God bless sheep. May the Queen benight all sheep. And the kits were brimming with bits of them!!
Those gorgeous wool samples in all their wondrous variety and texture, a tactile banquet pervaded by that balmy fragrance of lanolin.
Plus a bonus pack of beautifully painted watercolour cards illustrating an esoteric world of sheep farming and wool refining in a wide brown land – an industry to be a part of which was every child’s dream, for at least ten minutes at school next day.
Our revered Crusader Cloth company had a mission, implicit in its trade mark, to seek out strange foreign fabrics.. and destroy them. Yes, that especially included Muslin Delaine (that well-known spelling error).
Getting back to the story, well, that is how I came to know in loving detail about the fleecy creature by which my fledgling convict-seeded nation prospered.
This ovine obsession began, as did my childhood, when this numerically tiny nation produced one third of the world’s wool, and still does, a quarter of it.
So persistent, resourceful, and inventive were those early ovine-breeding Aussie battlers they would have produced the entire world wool clip without the aid of sheep, if need be.
“On the sheep’s back” was our national motto. If you cannot read Latin, let me assure you those very words are inscribed, in that language, on the Australian Coat of Arms [as we learned, in wide-eyed pride, from an ex-shearer teacher with a mischievous way].
For ye yet to visit this miraculous, industrious little frontier down-under, the “coat” on our Coat of Arms is made of wool, and the “Arms” refers to those of Skippy.
‘Tis a curious irony, a stranger will observe, that most Australians have never spoken to a sheep, but regularly share the dinner table with them.