Agritalk: A history of wool

This week’s Agritalk is one of a series of articles inspired by Primary Industries and Regions SA’s History of Agriculture website.

The website - pir.sa.gov.au/aghistory - houses historical records in cereals and grains, livestock, horticulture, seeds, pastures and crops and features more than 4000 historical images, with much of the work and articles on the site the result of many volunteer hours from dedicated former Department of Agriculture staff.

History of the Wool Industry

The early 1800s found wool reaching record prices in Europe, especially during the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815. This created a large influx of Merinos into Australia.

By the end of the 1850s, sheep numbers across Australia had reached 16 million, or around 39 sheep per head of population, compared to around 6 sheep per head of population today.

Early development of South Australia’s livestock industries commenced with sheep and cattle being driven overland from NSW in 1838.

However, the merinos did not improve the sheep for slaughter as meat sheep. In Adelaide in 1845, high demand for kangaroo from the new settlers pushed the price to an “extraordinary” nine pence per pound.

The original Saxon Merino was modified by crosses and selection in NSW by the Peppin Bros and in South Australia by the Hawkers, Murrays and Fishers.

Two distinct strains of wool were developed. A medium size wool strain in NSW and the large framed, long stapled, strong wool strain in South Australia.

These sheep were bred primarily for the pastoral country of low rainfall (less than 250mm per year).

Wool production was increased from 2-3kg per head to 4-5kg per head by careful selection and breeding in the early years.

The body weight and fertility of these strains were also increased so that it was possible to have ewes of 40-50kg and wethers from 45-60 kg live weight. There are even records of superfine Saxon wethers cutting 5kg of wool.

The introduction of the “wrinkly Vermont Merino” from the USA by Sir Samuel McCaughey in the late 1800s increased greasy fleece weight of rams but not necessarily clean fleece weight. Individual rams cut fleeces of 20 – 25kg but the yield of clean wool was as low as 20% in some cases.

The problem of wrinkles accentuated the growing sheep blowfly problem which increased to disastrous proportions in the 1930s and 1940s.

This crisis led to important research into blowfly control by breeding out the wrinkles from some strains of Merino, notably the South Australian Strongwool strain and later the Fonthill Merino.

Wool production was helped by a mechanical sheep shearing machine, invented by Frederick Wolseley (1837-99) when it was demonstrated around the country-to the delight of woolgrowers and the horror of blade shearers in the mid-1880s. In 1888 at Louth in NSW, Dunlop station became the first large machine shed with 40 Wolseley shearing shed stands operating.

In 1914 the United Kingdom was purchasing about 30% of Australia’s total wool exports and by the mid- 1920s it had increased to 50%. Wool exports accounted for three quarters of all pastoral export income, which included cattle, sheep, meat, wool and hides.

Prosperity in the wool industry peaked in 1951 with the average greasy wool price reached 144.2 pence per pound (equivalent to around $37 per kilogram in today’s prices), compared to around $3.20 per kilogram in mid-2002.

However, by 1971, wool production contributed only 15 % to total gross value of Agricultural production. In the decade1999-2000 Australian greasy wool production fell by 35%, partly due to a lack of demand influenced by new development in synthetic fibres.

While there has been growth in wool exports to China and other South East Asian countries over the last decade, the contribution of wool exports to Australia’s total merchandise exports fell significantly, from 5.8% in 1991 to 3% in 2001. Never the less, Australia produces more than a quarter of the world’s wool.

Part three of the series will explore the meat and dairy industry.

This information was sourced from pir.sa.gov.au/aghistory

This Agritalk column is compiled by Philippa Clark, Business Services Consultant, Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA), located in Struan. Contact: Philippa.clark@sa.gov.au. www.pir.sa.gov.au