A prized yarn from Australia, A lost merino recalls fatter years when Australia’s wealth was in wool

australian sheep with wool covered eyes




NOT since Australia founded a wool industry almost 200 years ago had the country seen a sheep quite like Chris. When a hiker spotted him in the wild this week near Canberra, the capital, the merino was weighed down with so much wool that he could barely walk. The RSPCA, an animal-welfare charity, adopted and named him, and reckoned him to be aged five or six. He had probably never been shorn. With help from four colleagues Ian Elkins, a champion shearer, relieved Chris of 40kg, an unofficial world record for fleece taken from a single sheep.

Chris’s plight accompanied news from Canberra that Australia’s economy grew by just 0.2% between April and June, making for an annual growth rate of 2%, lower than earlier forecasts. So the story of the merino—who, it is thought, strayed from a farmer’s flock—inspired reflections on a bygone era when Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”, and wool underpinned the country’s prosperity.

The first sheep arrived on the convict ships to Sydney with which Britain settled Australia in 1788. John Macarthur, an enterprising grandee, initiated the country’s fine-wool industry soon afterwards. He bred an Australian merino by crossing Spanish merinos from South Africa with local flocks. Macarthur was also a co-leader of the rebellion that overthrew William Bligh as governor of New South Wales in 1808. But it is his portrait as a wool pioneer, not a rebel, that featured on Australia’s two-dollar note, from its introduction in 1966 until its replacement by a coin 22 years later.

The wool industry helped to settle Australia’s wide, open spaces. Britain bought Australia’s entire clip during the second world war. During the Korean war of 1950-51, America’s demand for wool to clothe its troops sent prices soaring. Families with outback merino flocks became Australia’s richest people. Since then the country’s sheep flocks are thought to have halved in number. Today, its biggest customer for wool is China—though iron ore has overtaken it as Australia’s largest export commodity.

Australians continue to flock to agricultural jamborees to watch shearers compete for the fastest shearing times. Clipping an average fleece of 5kg from a sheep shorn once a year usually takes three minutes, says Mr Elkins. His team took 45 minutes to clip Chris’s. Shearing enthusiasts will have had another record in mind: until Chris lumbered into view, a stray New Zealand merino was reported to hold the title for heaviest fleece, at 27kg when it was shorn 11 years ago.

Culled form: http://www.economist.com