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Wool is one of Australia's most important export commodities. Around 98 percent of the wool produced in Australia is exported. This chapter documents how this thriving industry in Australia developed from humble beginnings. It also addresses the ways in which sheep farmers have been able to overcome obstacles to ensure the survival of this industry in Australia.

The first flock

In 1788 the British established a penal colony in the newly-claimed portion of the Australian continent, known as New South Wales. Since it usually took eight months to sail from England to Australia, the survival of the colony was dependent upon the early settlers being self-sufficient in food. To enable the early British settlers to produce their own food, the First Fleet carried farming tools, plants and livestock, including 44 South African fat-tail sheep. The few sheep which did not die on landing were used to provide the colony with a supply of mutton (meat from full-grown sheep). Even if the colony had had an ample supply of food, it is unlikely that the settlers would have farmed the sheep which arrived on board the First Fleet for their wool. Even wool of good quality was worth 30 to 40 times less than mutton. The South African fat-tail sheep on board the First Fleet had wool of very poor quality so their value was in their meat.

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During the 1790s, more sheep (including the Bengal sheep) were imported to New South Wales to prevent the colony from being faced with starvation. Despite desperate attempts to farm these sheep, the majority did not thrive. Since the settlers had not yet found a way to cross the Blue Mountains, where they would later find a vast spread of ideal grazing land, sheep were forced to graze in the swampy lands of the Sydney basin.

Macarthur and the Merino

A pioneer of the wool industry in Australia was the pastoralist John Macarthur. Macarthur and his wife arrived in the colony in 1790 where he served as a captain in the New South Wales Corps. In 1793, Macarthur was granted 100 acres of land (known as Elizabeth Farm) near Parramatta. The following year, the promising sheep and wheat farmer was rewarded with another 100 acres in return for being the first person to clear and cultivate 50 acres.

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Despite most colonial sheep farmers primarily being concerned with the production of mutton, Macarthur recognised a potential profit in exporting wool. Not only was there a strong demand for wool in England and Europe, but it was also inexpensive to produce and transport overseas. Mutton, on the other hand, was not an ideal product to export long distances from the colony. Since refrigerated ship transportation had not yet been developed, exporting meat to countries, such as England, posed a major problem.

While a wool export industry in New South Wales seemed a lucrative option, producing export-quality wool seemed almost impossible when the colony was still struggling to maintain the health of their flocks. Macarthur, an astute pastoralist, identified that many European animals imported to Australia were not thriving because they were unsuited to the semi-arid climate. In 1796, Macarthur and his wife commenced overcoming this problem by purchasing imported Merinos. Merinos are a breed of sheep prized for their heavy fleece and fine wool. Originally bred in the warm climate of Spain, these Merinos flourished in Australia.

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Macarthur was not the only colonial farmer to purchase imported sheep, including Merinos. His ability enabled him to achieve a much greater success than his fellow pastoralists. Many other sheep farmers cross-bred their Merinos which resulted in large-bodied sheep with coarse wool. Macarthur, however, only inter-bred his initial Merino flock with other Merinos. Macarthur had even purchased some of his sheep from King George III's Royal Flock. He did this with the intention of improving the health and bloodline of his flock, which would, in turn, result in high-quality, fine wool. Often used to make luxury knitwear, fine wool is sold for very high prices. Clothing is generally made using medium wool, while carpet and other sturdy woollen products are made with strong wool.

Macarthur's quest for fine wool eventually paid off. His Merino wool received exceptionally high praise from Britain. In 1807, the Macarthurs sent the first of many bales of wool to England. They soon became the wealthiest family in New South Wales.

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Thriving industry

In the years which followed the export of the Macarthurs' first bale, woollen mills in England continued to buy as much Merino wool from New South Wales as they could. The reason for the prosperity of the Australian wool industry, however, was not only because the Australian Merino wool was of high quality. The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1813) resulted in the near-complete destruction of the Spanish Merino industry. Since the Spanish Merinos were one of the world's largest wool producers, the gap between supply and demand for wool in Europe suddenly increased. Without much competition, New South Wales pastoralists received higher prices for their wool.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars also coincided with the opening up of vast grazing land over the Blue Mountains. In response to the growing demand for land in New South Wales, in 1813, three explorers (Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth) embarked on an expedition west of the original settlement in Sydney. Despite the Blue Mountains previously being thought to be impenetrable, the expedition was a great success. The explorers found an abundance of fertile grazing land, on which settlers quickly established large sheep runs (stretches of land for sheep to graze). Undoubtedly, these settlers, contributed to the production of 45 000 tonnes of fine wool which was exported from New South Wales to England in 1820.

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The spread of settlement beyond Sydney concerned many colonial officials. It was thought that the settlers could not be controlled from Sydney if they were too far away. In 1826, New South Wales Governor Darling responded to the concerns of the spread of settlement in the colony by specifying 'limits of location.' Many settlers, however, were still unable to resist the lucrative attraction of the vast grazing land outside the boundary. A number of settlers disregarded the law and illegally squatted on unoccupied Crown land. Since the squatters did not own land, they were not restricted to one area. Able to continually lead their flocks to new, fertile grazing land, the squatters often had some of the best flocks in the colony. The squatters played an important role in assisting wool to become one of Australia's most valuable export commodities. (Refer to Topic 1: Mass migration, Chapter 3: The life of the squatters)

By the 1830s, the pastoral industry had already expanded to Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania in 1853) and was just beginning to reach Portland and Port Phillip, in present-day Victoria. In 1840, 5657 tonnes of wool was exported to Britain from the colony. Imports of sheep also continued to grow, with 20 000 sheep imported into New South Wales in the same year. The Saxon and Vermont Merinos, and the English and Border Leicester, were just some breeds of sheep being imported during the mid-19th century. These sheep were often cross-bred with other breeds to produce different strains (a variety of domestic animal).

Facing challenges

While the production of wool in Australia continues to be a success story, it has not been without problems. Since settlement, pastoralists have had to fight for the survival of their flocks and, consequently, a steady profit.

During the 1850s, the gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria caused workers to leave their jobs in pursuit of their fortune on the goldfields. During the same decade, the number of sheep in Australia increased by a further 25 percent, to reach a total of 20.1 million. Without shepherds to prevent their sheep from wandering off, sheep farmers were forced to enclose their properties with large fences. Between 1850 and 1890, two million miles of fences were erected in New South Wales. While gold surpassed wool as Australia's primary export during the great gold rush period, by the 1870s, many workers had returned to their jobs and wool had resumed its place ahead of gold.

The wool industry has also been affected by disease, including flystrike (causes shedding and poor wool growth), and natural disasters, such as floods and bushfires. Throughout history, droughts have been responsible for widespread depressions in the pastoral industry. The 1895-1903 drought halved the sheep population in the colonies. Only eight years later, drought struck the country again, resulting in the loss of 19 million sheep. During the last few years of World War II (1939 to1945), 30 million sheep were lost. The last two years of the 1963-1968 drought resulted in the loss of yet another 20 million sheep in Australia. Australia is thought to have had a population of almost 200 million sheep at stages throughout the 20th century. Drought, among other things, has caused that number to drop to its current estimate of 114 million. Despite Australia not having the largest sheep population in the world (second to China), the nation is the world's largest producer of wool. Australia exports to 52 countries around the world. In the 2004-2005 period Australia's wool exports totalled $2.5 billion.

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