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Sheep

History

Sheep were one of the first domesticated animals to be introduced into Australia and came with the first ships to colonize on the continent.  Unlike many other domesticated animals, sheep have not become feral, but have had a large impact on Australia’s environment.  Within 50 years of their arrival, sheep had become the main source of income for Australian industry.  Raised not for meat, but for wool, industrialists quickly made Australian export of sheep more profitable than any country in the world.

Merino sheep were sought for their better combination of hair and wool to produce a finer combination of the two.  Spain had a monopoly on the Merino until the Napoleonic wars when France released a large number of Merinos into neighboring countries.  John Macarthur obtained Merinos in this way from Australian representatives to the King.  He pioneered the breeding of Merino sheep and was soon rewarded with the demand Australia received from England and throughout the world.  Wool production accounted for over 60% of Australia’s exports throughout the Twentieth century.  Today, Australia produces over one third of the world’s raw wool and over one half the world’s Merino wool.

Problems

Overgrazing is the main problem associated with sheep farming.  Overgrazing causes desertification and loss of biodiversity through the loss of native plants that do not grow back a rate sustainable to a pastoral industry.  Many native plants become extinct and introduced grasses are not as well suited to the environment as the native plants.  Grasslands force many indigenous species to relocate and can cause their extinction or endangerment.

Improving the Situation

Managed grazing has been a practice incorporated since the beginning of the pastoral industry.  Fields are left to grow back their grasses while herds move to more abundant pastures.  Not much concern is given to restricting the activities of sheep farmers because they are the most lucrative industry in the country, especially if the regulations are detrimental to their productivity.

Status

There are currently 20 species of sheep in Australia but the Merino, 75% of sheep population, is by far the most common.  Many sheep are bred for local farmers, but the bulk are Merinos bred for mass production of fine quality wool.  Most of the other miscellaneous breeds are for meat production and are crossbreeds of the Merino.

Written By:  Ryan Pelhank

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