What is Merino?

Merino which is popularly associated with the Australian sheep is referred to as various groups or breeds of sheep that is characterized as the producer of very fine quality wool. In the early 12th century they were first witnessed in Spain and have been of moorish importance. Till the beginning of the 18th century, the wool produced by the Merino sheeps were under the strict monopoly of Spain as the exports were a punishable offence and anyone who was found involved in the export of this high variant of sheep attracted the death penalty. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, a flock of Merino Sheeps were transported to several courts of France where the breeds modified into Rambouillet which is another variant of Merino. Other than France, it was also transported to Hungary, Sweden, New Netherlands etc. and subsequently they were spread to many parts of the world majorly including Australia and New Zealand. Since then many strands and breeds of Merino have evolved from its original genus and the evolved species of Merino includes American Merino, Deline Merino in America, Australian Merino, New Zealand Merino, Booroola and Peppin Merino in Oceania, Merinolandscharf and Gentile di Puglia in Europe. They adapt very well to semi-arid climates and nomadic pasturing. Polly merino, which is a subtype of the Australian merino, is a typical hornless variant whereas the other varieties of merino rams have long and spiral horns that grow very close to their head. 

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Characteristics of Merino Sheep

The size of the Merino sheep are quite considerable in their size, shape and structure with their extra, that is, the extended skin folds. But with the new trend of breeding of these animals, the sheep are developed to medium size with fair mutton conformation and very minimum extended skin to be left for the folds. They have a generally whitish complexion where their faces and legs are white in colour and they grow a considerable amount of wool on their body and on their face but it is not as extensive enough to cause them wool blindness. The wool of the Merino variant is considered to be the best of the quality as compared to any other breed of sheep. Thus the wool of the merino fleece is beautifully corrugated to be used in textiles further. The cross-breeding and selective mating of the different variants of merino sheep have laid an extensively strong foundation of livestock by generating many useful breeds and strains of sheep. Merino sheep are the breeds that look out extensively for foods and provisions. The Merino breed is known for its wool quality and thus the size of the carcass of this breed is generally smaller as compared to that of the sheep that are bred for meat. South African Meat Merino (SAMM), Rambouillet an American breed and Merino Fleisch Schaf a german breed are all carefully bred so that they are capable of balancing the need of wool production and also have a good carcass quality. For years the Merino variant has been domesticated and bred in such a way that they need to be shredded by their owners on a regular interval or otherwise it gets difficult for them to survive as they cannot stop growing wool on their body. They need to get shredded once every year. If not, then they might suffer from internal heat in the body, wool blindness and even mobility issues for some.   

Types of Merino Sheep

There have been two theories that have been revolving for years now that have been supported by their genetic studies over the years. One theory states that the merino breed first originated in the region that is known as Morocco today and then a flock of it has been transferred to the region now known as Spain in the early 12th and 13th century. Another theory states that it originated from the selective mating of another flock of sheep variant in the region named Extremadura that falls under Spain in the 12th century. Both these theories have been supported by the genetic studies that confirm that Merino sheep are the crossbreeds of Spanish ewes with imported rams that gave rise to a large variety of merino breeds. Today there have been ten different variants of Merino sheep exists out of which some of the major commercially viable breeds list is as follows:

1. Booroola Merino: They initially originated from a place named Tableland of New South Wales situated at the northern coast of Australia that has been subjected to a continuous development program that was first initiated by the commonwealth scientists and Industrial research organizations. Booloora Merino is different from other Marino breeds in two ways. One, they are highly fertile as compared to any other merino breed as each female booroola reproduces 2.5 lambs on an average each time post-mating with an actual range varying from 1 to 6. During the cross-breeding of this variant with other merino sheep, the productivity of the booroola ewes reduces but the half booroola ewes can still reproduce more than 20 percent lambs as compared to any other similar breed of this genus. Second, their breeding session is extensive as they can breed most of the time in a year. 

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2. Merinolandschaf : The origin of this sheep is in the 18th century where the german Landsheep was crossbred with Spanish merinos. This is one of the most widespread breeds of sheep in Germany today that accounts for almost 40% of the total variants of the sheep population in Germany. Back in 1953, this variety of sheep was not in much demand. The quality of the wool produced by them was of poor quality that had a fibre diameter of  33 -36 microns that is not considered suitable for textiles. Later in 1924, the merino wool sheep from Spain and France were crossbred with the Landsheep to improve the quality of the wool. Today the wool produced by this variant has a fibre diameter of 22 -26 microns. But these sheep are mostly recognized for protecting and conserving the highlands through landscape conservation like for Swabian Alb in south Germany is conserved against overgrowing. Since they have a distinct characteristic of protecting themselves from rigours all year round and can march up to hundreds of kilometres, they mostly feed on the leftover foliage grown in highlands and the dungs highly enrich the land with nitrogen content. This helps the solitary juniper trees, thistles and pasque flowers to grow on the albs of southern Germany. Since these white sheep are robustic in structure and shape thus the single lamb of the breed has more chances of survival even in extreme temperature conditions.

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3. South African merino: The south African merino makes the widest population in Africa that accounts for almost 18 million of this breed countrywide. The generic studies indicate that the development of this breed started about 200 years ago in central Africa and has been accelerated by modifying its genetics by introducing the genetics of the Australian Merino sheep. The structure of the African merino is more planer in nature and the folds are quite moderate as compared to the Australian merino sheeps in order to survive the extreme weather conditions in Africa. The South African merino ewes produce wool that weighs around 8 kgs post clipping while for the south African merino rams it weighs around 9-12 kgs even in extensive conditions. But under nominal and ideal conditions these masses of wool production by the ewes and the rams are much higher with the diameter of their wool fibre is around 21.7 microns.

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4. German Mutton merino: German mutton merino which is popularly known as Merino Fleisch Schaf have their comfortable habitat in the east of the Elbe river and spreads all the way up to the Ural mountains. They are intensively bred for the production in the conservation arid regions and for balancing the agricultural area. They can very easily get adapted to the changing climatic conditions and can adjust themselves to extreme weather. Thus they are grown easily without much care needed with good meat yield. Few of their brilliant characteristics like off-season breeding cycle, that is, 3 breeding in 2 years, extensive motherly care for their lambs and high fecundity that are generally absent or can be seen very seldomly in other german Marino breed makes the Merino Fleisch Schaf best suited for the production of milk. The weight of the mutton Marino varies with their age and gender. For instance, the old ram weighs around 120 to 140 kgs whereas the yearling ram weighs 90 - 120 kgs. The yearling ewes weigh around 70-80 kgs whereas the yearling sheep weigh about 60 to 65kgs. The nature of the wool produced by this species is tighter and closer to their skin. Their wool is characterized by an evenly distributed fibre diameter of 23 - 24 microns. The ram can produce about 7 to 10 kgs of wool at a time whereas their ewe faeces contain only 4 to 5 kgs of wool.

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2. South African mutton merino: South African merino sheeps are bred to serve the dual purpose of production of wool as well as for carcass meat. It was eventually developed from a small nucleus of the german merino breed but then it has quickly adopted the climatic conditions of South Africa. Thus it is generally considered for slaughtering when it weighs around 35 kgs and 100 days of age and still be able to produce a good volume of moderate to strong quality wool that normally weighs around 4 kgs for a young ram. The meat yield is satisfactory. There is about an excess of 150% of lambing that is very common in this breed while the yearling ewes have the capacity to produce large amounts of milk that are sufficient to raise a healthy lamb with high strength. The South African merino breed generally do not possess horns and are therefore known as polled sheep. The adult rams weigh almost 100- 110 kgs whereas the fully mature ewes have a mass that is near about 70 -80 kgs. 

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 Merino Sheep Origin

There are three theories that revolve around the origin of the merinos that also has been supported by the various genetic studies of several merino breeds. The first theory states that the origin of the breed and evolving of the breed happened in the 12th and the 13th century at Extremadura that is situated in southwestern Spain. The second one states that a flock of merino sheep was imported to Morocco where they were bred into multiple numbers and varieties. The third one states that there was cross-breeding of the Spanish ewes with different varieties and species of rams and are therefore studying that the good quality of wool was not invented till the end of the 15th century. Although the major part of the genetic studies show that the evaluation of the merino breed happened as a result of several crossbreeding over the years of the churros ewes with a variety of rams. The first crossbreeding of the two counterparts was done in Italy in the medieval period followed by North Africa and finally in England at the starting of the 15th century when the importation of the sheep started. The preserved fabric made of earlier wool made in low land countries shows that the quality of the wool was cheap during the 16th century except for the English wool that has the fineness of the staple compared to the modern wool. A wide range of Spanish wool produced during the 13th and 14th century was for domestic consumption with cheap and light fabric that was not considered merino wool. Similar low-quality wool was also exported to England from several low countries for producing low cheap clothes. But the finest of the wool of the merino breed started exporting at the beginning of the 15th century where the first stock of the finest wool was exported from Spain to England. With this, the export of Spanish wool increased all over the world resulting in a price rise. The first Italian import of Spanish wool happened in the 1930s. 

History of Merino Sheep in Australia

The first lot of sheep were imported to Australia for consumption of mutton and not for wool in the first fleet that sailed from Portsmouth, England to New South Wales, Australia. It reached the Australian port in 1788 where only 70 sheeps were able to survive through the journey. A few months later, the flock had just reduced to 28 ewes and just one lamb. Thus the flock of the merino sheep were introduced in Australia in 1789 from cape town as well as from Spain. At that time the breed had already evolved to produce fine quality wool but soon after the Australian farmers started cross-breeding different breeds of rams with the ewes in order to produce the finest and original quality of Australian merino wool.  In 1807, the first fleece of original Australian merino wool was exported to England and thereafter there was a huge demand for the finest wool from Australia in many countries around the world. With the major rise and contraction of the merino wool production in Australia, it is to date the biggest exporter of finest merino wool that is considered as the premium quality by major textile luxury brands. 

Merino Wool Quality

Merino wool is considered the finest with its staple measuring around 65 to 100 mm long. The good quality Peppin Merino rams produce near about 18 kgs of wool whereas a little less quality sheep named Saxon Merino produces around 3 -6 kgs of wool around a year. Generally, the diameter of the merino wool fibre is around 24 microns but this has also been categorized into different segments according to its fineness. The strong wool fibre measures around 23 - 24.5 micrometre, the medium wool fibre is 21 -22.9 micrometre in diameter, the fine is around 18 - 20.9 micrometre, the superfine measures around 15 - 18 micrometre and the ultrafine measures around 11.5 - 15 micrometre. Therefore, the ultrafine fibre is often blended with other textile materials like silk and cashmere to make the finest quality clothing. 

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FAQs on Merino

1. What is Merino?

Ans. Marino is the breed of sheep that originated in Spain and a similar breed in South Africa that is well known for the production of the finest quality of wool of various grades.

2. Are Merino Sheeps Considered for Meat?

Ans. Though the majority of the merino breeds are cultivated and considered for the production of wool, some of the variants of merino breeds that do not produce a very fine quality of cotton and are generally robust in appearance are also used for carcass meat as their meat yield is generally high.

3. Why is Merino Wool Expensive?

Ans. The fibres of the merino are really very small and fine in nature with the diameter of the finest range measuring around 11 to 12 microns. Thus it takes a very long time and intensive handling care to make yearns from merino wool that can further be used knitting textiles. As no other variety of wool has the texture as that of merino thus it makes it rare and therefore expensive.