The Australian Wool Industry

I’m often asked why I don’t take photographs of sheep.  It’s a good question.  I grew up on a wheat-sheep place and have over the years taken a lot of photographs of sheep and particularly love the wool industry.  But there’s two main reasons why to date, I’ve spent a lot of time concentrating on photographing cattle stations:

  • The largest cattle stations are located in the remotest parts of Australia and specific, reliable information and images remain scarce.  This is unlike sheep properties, most of which are located in more closely settled areas – in relative terms, not far from larger towns and capital cities.  Because of this relative proximity to rural  journalists and photographers  (which means sheep places are relatively visible and more quickly & cheaply accessed) life on Australian sheep properties has been much more thoroughly documented than life on Australia’s largest cattle stations.  In addition, a lot of  this wool industry coverage has been much better quality, because a lot more of it has been from photographers and writers who have a genuine understanding of their subject (they are not just outsiders looking in, as has too often been the case regarding northern cattle stations).   Any inaccurate coverage is usually corrected by those who pick the error up.  Whereas a capital city paper can run a story on a remote cattle station which is very inaccurate and a) only a very tiny percentage of readers [if any] will know there are errors, as there inevitably is  and b) an even tinier percentage of those are likely to go to the trouble of writing to the paper or journalist concerned, telling them to get their act together.
  • Relatively few sheep properties muster stock with horses – mostly it’s motorbikes and utes, and/or dogs; except in very hilly or rough country.  And photographing horses – especially the quantities involved in genuine work – has been a major drawcard for me.  Few people are aware of the dependence of large Australian cattle stations on stockhorses for mustering and walking stock.  Unfortunately many people are under the illusion that motorbikes, helicopters and planes have taken over cattle station mustering, which is only the case in certain regions (mostly flat, relatively open country – not  northern Australia).

The Australian merino wool industry certainly has a fascinating culture and history, and unfortunately wool producers have been through some very tough times during recent decades.  Sadly, sheep have now disappeared from many areas where world-famous Merino wool has been grown for many decades.  For example, sheep have disappeared from most downs country properties between Townsville and Mount Isa and greatly reduced in numbers further south.  They have been replaced by cattle – easier to manage (requiring fewer and less skilled staff) and relatively profitable by comparison – at least in recent years.    Sheep have even disappeared from many famous Merino Studs, bought up by Australian and overseas companies chasing easier short term profits provided by cattle and crop growing.

Given the increase in environmental sustainability awareness, it is very surprising that wool has not become highly fashionable again in recent years.  Hopefully it will.  After all, what is more environmentally friendly than shearing a sheep, returning it to the paddock to eat grass and drink water – whereupon it produces a lamb and another fleece which you shear off twelve months later to turn into warm jumpers and socks?

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