From ancient lands to modern genetics, Merino sheep have been highly prized for over a thousand years. These animals are diverse and reside in all manner of climates and on various continents. They produce the finest wool on the planet and have intrigued us down through history.
They have parented different sheep breeds all over the world yet for all their importance they are very humble creatures and adapt well nearly anywhere.
Merinos are worth their weight in gold and produce vast revenue in a wide arena of industries from wool to breeding and food production. Let us introduce them to you.
The first thing noticed about the Merino is their wool. The vast amount of wool comes from these gorgeous creatures. They are not overly large. Ewes typically weigh in at 54.4kg. They can each produce fleece 6.4-8.2 kg or wool annually. Rams are the heaviest and can weigh anywhere from 72.6-81.6 kg.
They produce an average of 11.3 kg or wool a piece on an annual basis. These are hardy sheep. Their carcasses are smaller than sheep bred for meat. This makes them more popular in the woollen industry than for meat processing.
Merino sheep have a 300-degree field of vision making it possible for them to see without turning their heads. They also have superb hearing. They have 32 teeth- 24 molars, and 8 incisors yet they do not have any teeth in their upper front jaw.
Poll Merinos do not have horns. Instead, they have small nubs which are known as scurs. Horned Merino rams, on the other hand, possess long, spiral horns.
These sheep have fabulous herding instincts. They are wonderful foragers which makes them easily adaptable. They also adapt well to many different climates and habitats which makes them very versatile to breed in nearly all areas of the world.
Sheep are herbivores and eat leaves, grass, and hay. These wonderful animals have digestive systems that consist of four chambers to help them break down the things they eat.
They digest their food in two stages. The first stage takes the raw material and regurgitates it in a semi-digested form called a “cud”. They then chew the cud and swallow that later.
Their scientific name is Ovis aries. The Merino sheep breed can be traced back a thousand years. These sheep have made their permanent mark in the study of genetics. They have been used to parent several other breeds including the Rambouillet breed of France.
Their wool is the finest in the world which makes these animals extremely important for the wool industry. Their wool must be shorn once a year for their own survival and well-being as their wool continues to grow and will create problems if not maintained.
Merinos that are not shorn at least once a year can suffer from heat stress, blindness and mobility issues.
Merino milk is used to make gourmet cheeses. It has a better flavour than milk from cows or goat and has higher levels of calcium, zinc, fat, protein, riboflavin, thiamine, and niacin. Certain Merino breeds are bred to balance both wool and meat industries and are used for both.
The South African Meat Merino (SAMM), the American Rambouillet, and the German Merinofleischschaf are Merinos bred for both markets and have fine wool along with a heftier carcass for meat.
There seems to be some disagreement as to the origins of this fascinating breed. It seems the Merino sheep began in Spain. The Moors brought this breed’s ancestors with them in the 8th century. By the 12th century, the flocks were beginning to breed in significant numbers.
They were bred with European sheep and the Merino breed officially began. Spain kept the monopoly on these beautiful sheep for hundreds of years. This made their wool highly sought after and made the Spaniards a hefty profit in the woollen trade.
In these early centuries, it was illegal to export the merino sheep from Spanish borders. They were owned by nobility or the church. By the 18th century, the law changed, and the king and several members of the nobility began to send small flocks to other countries and principalities.
This spread the lovely merinos throughout the world and began new breeds of sheep as merinos were bred with local flocks. Now, Australia, United States, and Germany are the countries that breed these sheep in the largest numbers. The Peppin, Delaine, and Booroola breeds are all bred from the famous Merino sheep.
Merino sheep are unique. They are the nobility of the sheep breeds and hold themselves with a manner of grace. All sheep are not equal, and the Merino proves this is true.
They are beautiful and have done their part to enhance and impress the world for over a thousand years.