History in Europe
For centuries, the ancient Merino breed had been renowned in Spain for its fine wool. The Merino industry was so valuable that the penalty for exporting the sheep was death. After the Peninsular campaign of the Napoleonic wars disrupted Spanish society in 1807–14, the wool industry declined and Merinos spread throughout Europe, North America and Australia.
Merinos on the move
The Mesta, a powerful organisation of Spanish Merino owners, grazed their huge flocks on Spain’s southern plains in winter and the northern highlands in summer. Similarly, on the big sheep stations in New Zealand’s South Island high country, the animals are often shifted seasonally to the high mountains in summer, and down to the valleys before winter – a system called transhumance.
Merinos in New Zealand
The Merino was the first sheep breed brought to New Zealand in large numbers. The Australian sheep industry was based on Merinos, and from the 1840s to early 1860s thousands were transported across the Tasman Sea. They were not always good quality, so New Zealand breeders imported small numbers from Germany, France, Britain and the US to improve the stock. By the early 1880s the New Zealand Merino had become a distinct type.
George Rich, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1840, became one of the world’s top Merino breeders. In1858 he toured Europe to find the best flocks, and imported sheep from Prussia and France to improve his stud. In 1861 he exported 28 ewes and rams from New Zealand to the famous French Merino flock at Rambouillet. Two years later, his son sold a ram in Sydney for £300 – a record price.
Pastoralists and farmers soon discovered that Merinos were prone to footrot in warm moist conditions. Originating from a semi-arid land, the breed was not resistant to the disease. Footrot infects the tissue inside the hoof – in severe cases, the horny part can detach from the rest of the foot. Infection can result in weight loss, reduced productivity and death. Settlers on small farms in wet districts or with heavy soils found they could not keep Merinos.
Unsuitability for meat production
For centuries, Merinos had been bred only for their wool, without considering meat production. The animals are lean and slow to mature, and settlers found them unsuitable for producing meat, compared with British breeds. By the early 1870s pastoralists had no outlet for their surplus sheep, except boiling them down for tallow (rendered fat, used for making soap and candles). The Merino was too lean to make this profitable, so, like small farmers, pastoralists looked to other breeds that would provide a better return.
In 1868 the manager of the Levels sheep station in South Canterbury mated a line of Merino ewes with English Leicester rams as an experiment. The results were so successful that by 1879 only 6,300 of the 80,000 sheep shorn on the station were pure Merinos.
The shift away from Merinos
Merinos were the basis of the New Zealand sheep flock, so breeders who wanted to change their type of sheep had to cross-breed their Merino ewes with a British-breed sire. Small farmers began cross-breeding sheep in the 1840s to overcome footrot and to produce a sheep with a meatier carcass. In the 1860s, some South Island pastoralists also experimented with cross-breeding.
The new fashion for worsted cloth in Britain, Europe and America encouraged this change. The process for making the fabric required long wool with good tensile strength that could be mechanically combed without breaking. The machinery of the time could not use short, fine Merino wool, but wool from half-bred sheep – the first cross of a Merino and a long-wool breed – proved ideal. Half-bred wool provided better returns for growers.
In the early 2000s, New Zealand had about 3 million Merinos out of a total 39 million sheep.