Australian Wool & Lamb Production

Like a lot of people in the Riverina on wheat/sheep farms, I grew up on lamb chops, roast lamb, lamb shepherd’s pie, lamb patties, lamb cutlets, lamb kebabs, lamb casseroles, lamb sandwiches and lamb any other way you can think of eating it. Well we called it lamb – it wasn’t mutton (my mother bailed up at that) – but it was usually something in-between. Not many farmers eat the very best of what they produce – certainly not those of Scottish descent! We wore hand knitted wool jumpers and wool singlets and wool socks instead of turning up the heaters, but then so did everyone else when I was growing up.

I cannot for the life of me understand why wool has fallen from grace in recent years, especially now Australia’s famous Merino wool can be spun as fine as you like and can be machine washed. Wool is the most environmentally friendly fibre on the planet. Sheep are shorn annually then run off and eat grass and drink water for another year – producing another good fleece and probably a lamb or two to boot.

Wool is fabulous insulation and resistant to fire, it repels water and ‘breathes’, and it’s completely natural. Cotton is a great natural fibre for summer and the tropics but you have to wear it a foot thick to stay warm in winter, and who wants to go around like the Michelin Man.

So the only other alternative (apart from specialty cloths such as hemp, linen and silk) is synthetic material created from petrochemicals. Is it a good idea to choose synthetic chemicals over a completely natural fibre, on a daily basis?

Is it a good idea to heat your house or office up like an oven in winter and dry your skin out like a lizard, just so you don’t have to wear a jumper or jacket?

There is nothing more impressive than a long wool coat – they make anyone look stylish – and there’s nothing sillier than the sight of freezing people dashing between offices and transportation, under-dressed in slippery synthetics. (For examples of both, observe commuters at peak hour along the upper end of Collins Street, Melbourne CBD, in midwinter.)

If you live in a cold climate and you care about the environment, you must own a quality wool coat, some good wool jumpers and some thick wool socks. And even in the tropics you can wear ugg boots first thing on winter’s mornings. But buy the genuine WOOL ugg boots, not those misleadingly advertised as ‘suede’ which are not genuine suede at all, they’re synthetic rubbish that will make your feet sweat and stink.

Unfortunately in recent years the Australian wool industry has reduced in size substantially, due to falling prices at a time when cattle prices were relatively good, so many long-term wool producers made the switch to beef.  Many large companies have purchased blue ribbon properties renowned for producing quality merino wool; destocked them and replaced the entire sheep flock with cattle.   It takes a lot more time and management expertise to well manage a sheep operation, however hopefully the decline in sheep numbers has plateaued.

A few handy Australian sheep & wool information links:

Standard basic terms used for sheep in Australia:

  • Ewe – adult female sheep
  • Ram – adult male sheep
  • Wether – adult male sheep that has been castrated (testicles removed – so it is not able to breed)
  • Lamb – baby sheep
  • Merino – a famous Australian breed of sheep that thrives in Australian conditions and produces beautiful fine wool (below 20 micron – great for fine wool garments, such as flash business suits – bought by famous Italian clothing companies who often set auction records for buying the very best bales of fine wool). Susceptible to footrot and they don’t do so well in the highest rainfall areas, eg parts of New Zealand.
  • Border Leicester – a Roman-nosed sheep that grows ‘stronger’ (coarser) wool, good for heavier duty jobs such as carpets. The meat from Border Leicesters is better eating than that of purebred Merinos (speaking from personal testing over many years….) Border Leicesters are more likely to have twins and have a reputation for being better mothers than Merinos.
  • ‘First cross’ sheep – usually sheep with Merino mothers and Border Leicester fathers. They are good do-ers due to hybrid vigour, and the relatively hardy wethers are ideal for cleaning up wheat stubble – thus a favourite of wheat/sheep farming operations in regions such as the Riverina.
  • Lamb – meat from young sheep – usually fattened on good pasture.
  • Mutton – meat from much older sheep; has a stronger flavour and not so tender.

I may specialise in photographing cattle stations, but I love sheep – especially Merino sheep.

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