A common breed of domestic sheep is “The Merino,” and it has a rich history. The breed has its origins in Spain but then was domesticated in Australia.
While it was found in the 12th century, it has seen a lot of refining in the breed until the 18th century, and the wool has helped with economic development due to possessing the finest sheep wool.
Characteristics of the Merino Sheep
The Merino is a breed that has a variety of appearances, especially in size and conformation; however, they are generally medium in size, are white in color, and have crimped wool fibers.
There are two types of Merino, those with horns and those without. The ones without horns actually have small stubs on the top of their heads, and the horned Merinos will have long horns that spiral close to the head.
This breed is well known for their foraging abilities, and the fact they are very adaptable. While they are predominantly known for their wool, some breeders occasionally use them for meat even they are much smaller than meat breeds. Like the South African Meat Merino, the German Meriofleischschaf, and the American Rambouillet.
Three breeds that are working on fine-tuning the balance of both wool and meat in this breed.
Origin of the Merino Sheep
The Merino Sheep originally come from the North African plateaus of the Atlas Mountains and are now one of the oldest and hardiest breeds of sheep in the world. Merino sheep lived there under extreme, often adverse weather conditions, the kind you only find in the mountains when you spend all four seasons there at once.
Thus, they had to endure extreme temperature fluctuations from minus 20 to plus 35 degrees. That is why they have a coat that is perfectly adapted to such harsh conditions.
In the Middle Ages, the sheep finally reached Spain, where their wool was sold as the valuable “Spanish wool.”
In the 18th century, the first Merino sheep were then exported to Australia, which has since become the world’s largest exporter of this precious commodity and other wool-producing countries such as New Zealand, South Africa and South America.
The country of origin of the Merino sheep is Spain. They got their name from the Berber tribe of Ber-Merines, who moved from North Africa to Spain in the 12th century, bringing with them the ancestors of the Merinos – West Asian wool sheep.
These Spanish sheep formed the breeding basis for the Merino meat sheep. Especially during the reign of Peter of Aragon (1239 to 1285), the breeding of the strain experienced a substantial promotion.
View of the city of Tamellalt in Atlas Mountains in Morocco
It is assumed that Merino sheep were first introduced in Spain by the Marinids, but they may have been in the Iberian Peninsula even before that.
Surely the breed was used in the 13th and 14th centuries by Spanish breeders when they formed a monopoly for their wool spinning business.
From the end of the 15th century, special grazing rights were granted to the flocks of sheep in the southern provinces of Spain. The flocks were used to make long annual migrations. For this reason, they were called ovejas merinos (“wandering sheep”). A strict ban on the export of sheep guaranteed Spain a monopoly position in the wool production sector for centuries.
So initially, the sheep were owned only by the church or by the nobility.
Until the 18th century, you could not legally export the Merino breed.
The 18th century
Slowly throughout the 18th century, this breed was exported throughout Europe through noble families. Then in 1778, the first real studying of the breed for genetic breeding began in Germany.
The breed was finally introduced in the United States in the 19th century.
During the 19th century, the breed could be found worldwide, where people worked on fine-tuning the breed to create the finest wool.
Today, breeding is continued using artificial insemination or embryo transfer.
The Merino Wool
Due to domestication and breeding, the Merino Sheep must be shorn annually, because they cannot survive without regular care by humans. Because the wool on this breed does not stop growing, they run the risk of wool blindness, heat stress, followed by mobility issues.
Merino wool is extremely fine and two and a half to four inches long. Depending on the breed of Merino, they can produce between 13 and 40 pounds of wool in a year, and this is three times more than ordinary sheep.
There are five types of wool that include ultrafine, superfine, fine, medium, and strong wool. The differences are based on the micron measurements. Ultrafine is as small as 11 microns in diameter and often used in cashmere fabrics.
One of the best quality types of wool comes from the merino sheep, which the fashion industry mainly uses for sweaters, scarves, stockings, and very noble fabrics.
Due to this breed’s ability to produce a massive amount of wool, a procedure became common to prevent myiasis, a parasitic infection from flystrike. Flies are attracted to urine and feces, which gets stuck on the wool around the buttocks of the sheep.
Therefore a part of the skin around the buttocks is removed. Of course, this is done to protect the animal from infections, but it is still a ruthless procedure called Mulesing.
Because Animal rights activists began attacking this procedure in early 2000, top clothing retailers such as *Gap, Nordstrom, or *ORTOVOX began to refuse to sell any products made with Australian Merino wool, where the practice was prevalent.
Since the boycott of products made from farms that practice mulesing, breeding of the Merino to create thinner wool in that area of the body has been promoted.
Merino sheep are hardy animals that are adaptable to all areas and create high-quality wool that needs to be shorn annually.
They also have decent quality meat, which makes them an excellent breed for ranchers. The history of this breed is plentiful, but the strain has been procured for optimum wool production.
- Merino, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Merino&oldid=967169635 (last visited July 11, 2020).
- Roys Farm, Merino Sheep Characteristics, Origin & Breed Information (last visited July 11, 2020).