Renowned for its ultra-fine wool, the merino sheep comes from Spain where the kingdom jealously kept a monopoly on its breeding until the 18th century. When its export was authorized, sheep enjoyed worldwide success, particularly in Australia where wool production really took off. Very popular in the fashion industry, its soft and insulating wool has many qualities. Let’s get to know merino sheep better and see how to raise them in the best conditions.
What do merino sheep look like?
Widely distributed across the planet, the merino sheep is a breed bred for its abundant, white and very fine wool. This sheep generally has a compact and robust silhouette, reinforced by a broad and deep chest. Its legs are relatively short and strong and its small tail is woolless. The merino’s head is rather broad, its elongated muzzle, its expressive eyes and its medium-sized ears are straight or slightly drooping. While some individuals have spiral horns, most merinos are genetically selected not to develop them in order to facilitate their handling and limit the risk of injury to other sheep and breeders.
What are the origins of the merino breed?
The ancestors of the merino would have their origins in Asia Minor, in the current regions of Turkey and the Middle East, before being introduced to North Africa. The sheep would have been established in Spain by the Moors at the end of the 12th century. Until the 18th century, the Spanish kingdom imposed a monopoly on fine merino wool and punished anyone who exported sheep outside its borders with capital punishment. The lifting of the ban in the 18th century made it possible to introduce the breed in several countries including France, where the crossing of merino rams with local ewes gave mixed breeds such as:
The sheep of Rambouillet. Under the leadership of King Louis XVI, who wanted to improve the quality of the wool produced in the country, Spanish merinos were introduced to the Bergerie nationale de Rambouillet, near Paris, where selective breeding was undertaken. The crossbreeding gave birth to the Rambouillet sheep, an animal capable of withstanding French climatic conditions while producing wool with qualities similar to that of pure merino; Merinos from Arles. The breed appeared during the 19th century, following selection work initiated by the Bergerie Impériale d’Arles created for this purpose in 1805. Arles merinos come from crosses between a breed from the Crau plain and Spanish rams. The Arles merino breeders’ union was founded in 1921 and the breed’s pedigree book opened in 1946. Today, 90% of Arles merinos are found in Provence. What are the characteristics of merino wool?
Merino wool is especially sought after for its fineness (expressed in microns) and its whiteness, which result from a complex selective process lasting two centuries. Observed under a microscope, its fiber is up to 3 times finer than that which constitutes traditional wool. On average, merino wool has a diameter of between 18 and 24 micrometers, but you should know that some sheep produce a fiber measuring less than 18 micrometers. Merino wool is therefore particularly appreciated by sensitive skin because it is known not to sting. Its tiny diameter allows the manufacture of very fine and light woolens which do not prevent it from offering efficient thermal insulation.
How did merino wool conquer the world?
In 1797, following the lifting of the ban by the Kingdom of Spain, the first sheep from Iberian flocks were exported to the Australian colonies. The environment, notably the climate and the vast expanses of pastureland, proved suitable for raising sheep. After several decades of crossbreeding, genetic selection programs resulted in a breed with highly wrinkled skin with an overabundance of wool. While these sheep already produced quality fiber, selective breeding by Australian farmers created an animal with finer wool and increased its productivity. Today, Australia is generally considered the world’s largest producer and supplies 90% of the merino wool used by the fashion industry.
Who started the merino wool trend?
Given its robustness, merino wool was once used to make work clothes and military uniforms. The material really achieved success in the decade following the First World War. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel designed a dress in premium Jersey wool that shook up fashion codes. The famous designer appreciated merino wool for its softness, its lightness and its ability to combine comfort and elegance. Above all, the great French seamstress demonstrated that it was possible to use for women materials previously reserved for making men’s clothing. Coco Chanel thus played a major role in the popularization and promotion of merino wool in the fashion industry.
How to raise merino sheep?
These sheep are known to be easy to care for and raise. They quickly get used to new environments and climates thanks to their fleece which insulates and regulates their internal temperature. The hardiness and herd instinct of the merino sheep allow it to adapt to small traditional breeding in sheepfolds as well as to transhumance in large herds. If you wish to adopt a sheep of this breed, here is our advice to ensure its health and well-being:
Merinos do not require a specific diet. A standard, balanced sheep diet – consisting mainly of green pasture and good quality hay – is ideal for them. In addition to forage, supplements can be provided to merinos to meet their protein, vitamin and mineral needs. Access to a source of clean, fresh water is crucial;
Although their fleece helps protect them from harsh weather, merino sheep can be sensitive to extreme temperatures. As such, they must have shelter that will protect them from wind, rain, snow and intense sun. The sheepfold must be well ventilated to avoid the accumulation of humidity and straw used as bedding to keep the floor dry and prevent the occurrence of painful hoof diseases. In addition, the shelter must be secure to prevent the intrusion of predators;
Mating takes place between August and January and after approximately 5 months of gestation, births take place in spring. In general, a ewe gives birth to one lamb per year which she suckles and keeps warm, surrounding it with thick wool to protect it from bad weather. In addition, she educates her little one by teaching it how to feed, move and interact with its peers. You just have to let nature take its course by simply providing a safe and clean environment, enough water and food, and looking after the health of the mother and her offspring. However, we must remain attentive to primiparous ewes, that is to say ewes giving birth for the first time, because their maternal instinct is not yet well developed, they can neglect their lambs.
It is essential to follow a vaccination schedule to prevent common diseases in sheep, such as bluetongue (BFT), clavicle and other foot and mouth diseases. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend the appropriate vaccinations based on your region and specific risks. Internal parasites (worms) can also prove problematic in Merinos, so regular deworming is recommended to control parasitic infestations.
Why should merino sheep be sheared?
In merino sheep, the particularly abundant fleece covers the entire body, including the forehead, cheeks and legs. It can thus reach 3 kg in females and up to 5 kg in males (more in individuals selected for the quality of their wool). It is imperative to shear merino sheep, otherwise the animal risks suffering from certain problems such as:
Difficulty regulating body temperature during hot periods of the year. Heat stroke can cause respiratory distress, increased heart rate, dehydration and even death in sheep; An increase in parasitic diseases caused by ticks and fleas that can proliferate in dirty wool. Infestation with external parasites can lead to skin irritations, infections and other dermatological problems; Discomfort and mobility difficulties that prevent the sheep from carrying out daily activities such as grazing, moving and other natural needs; Pain during subsequent mowing. Wool that is not sheared regularly risks tangling and forming knots, making future shearing more difficult and painful for the sheep. How to shear merino sheep?
As noted above, regular shearing of merino is necessary before the wool becomes too long and causes health problems for the animal. In fine weather, you will need to shear your sheep, first checking that its wool is clean and dry. If necessary, clean its fleece roughly to remove dirt and small plant debris. It is recommended to use a clipper specially designed for sheep and to ensure that it is clean and well sharpened so as not to pull on the wool. Start with the less sensitive parts of the sheep to get them used to the sensation, then follow an orderly shearing pattern, in the direction of wool growth, paying attention to the folds in the skin. Be careful around sensitive areas of the sheep (belly, udders and genitals), to avoid injury. After shearing, take care of the merino’s skin by providing it with a healthy environment and protecting it from drafts and sudden temperature changes. If you are afraid of making a clumsy move, call a professional who will know how to shear your sheep while guaranteeing its well-being.