In The 19th Century, Vermont Merino Sheep Bred Controversy In Australia

Sep 21, 2015

It's not about to displace the cow as the go-to image people have when they think of the most iconic Vermont animal, but the Merino sheep has a deep and rich history of its own in the Green Mountain State.

Vermont Edition spoke to Rebecca Woods, a Montpelier native and lecturer at Columbia University specializing in environmental history and the history of science. She describes Vermont's long history with the Merino sheep, and the bonds the sheep helped forge across the world in Australia.

How the Merino came to America

"They originally come from Spain, and what makes them special is the fineness of their wool," says Woods. "They grow the finest wool of any breed of sheep. I believe only cashmere, which goats grow, is a finer fiber that can be used for clothing."

The quality of this fiber lent to their importance to 19th-century Vermont.

Prior to 1801, there were no Merino sheep in the United States. But during the Napoleonic wars, American diplomats started exporting large numbers of sheep stateside.

Upon their introduction to Vermont in the early 1800s, Merino sheep took well to the hilly land and cold weather.

"There was a kind of 'Merino bubble' at this time. Everyone wanted to invest in them as a way to establish American manufacturing that could compete with, and break, America's dependence on Britain for manufactured goods," says Woods.

Merino sheep are viewed as "unusual" when compared to other breeds of sheep for their preference for extremes in climate temperature. Upon their introduction to Vermont in the early 1800s, they took well to the hilly land and cold weather.

Ties to Australia

The excitement over Merino wool was not limited to Vermont, however.

"Captain Macarthur, who was one of the founders of the colony of New South Wales, picked up some Merino sheep in South Africa on his way to Australia," says Woods. Although the island continent of Australia was known to be a hostile climate for European transplant animals and plants, the Merino sheep thrived in this new location.

"By the 1870s, when the Vermont type of Merino goes to Australia, there is already a massive and really lucrative Merino production system in place," says Woods.

The Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association sent a pair of Vermont Merino to Australia in 1879. What was intended as a gift had hefty consequences for the Merino trade of Australia.

The Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association sent a pair of Vermont Merino sheep by both rail and ship from Addison County to Australia, by way of San Francisco, in 1879. What was intended as a gift had hefty consequences for the Merino trade of Australia.

"Australia actually had a very strict rule against importing foreign animals because of something called scab, which is a skin disorder that sheep get," says Woods. "But they broke [the rule] for this particular pair and allowed them to be exhibited at the big colonial agricultural fair."

Breeding controversy

The Vermont Merinos differed greatly from the Australian Merinos. They grew a larger amount of what was a heavier, coarser wool that contained more lanolin, a natural oil produced by the sheep. Australian Merinos lacked this trait, and grew a finer wool. "It was a question of quantity over quality with the Vermont versus the Australian kind of wool," says Woods.

Their body compositions differed as well. "Australian Merinos were called smooth-bodied, so the skin fit relatively tightly over there skeleton. Vermont Merinos, what was distinct about them, was that they were  incredibly wrinkly [and] had folds of skin from head to toe."

"Some breeders referred to the Vermont sheep as a 'white elephant' and 'so much trash' ... It was a kind of controversial import, for sure." - Rebecca Woods, Columbia University lecturer

Once Australian farmers began breeding the wrinkled American sheep with the smooth-bodied Australian sheep, it became difficult to remove the "wrinkled" trait later on. This sparked a trend for wrinkly sheep in Australia that lasted from 1880 to 1906, when the pendulum then swung back to smooth sheep.

Heated debates dominated the agricultural scene in Australia over the importation of the Vermont sheep.

"Some breeders referred to the Vermont sheep as a 'white elephant' and 'so much trash'," says Woods. "Later on, there is a well known agricultural reporter for a different paper who chastised these fellows for, you know, basically looking a gift sheep in the mouth and that was no way to repay Vermont's kindness. Basically it was a kind of controversial import, for sure."

The Merino remained, and still is, central to the Australian economy. "The Merino functions more like the dairy cow in Australia than it does in Vermont," says Woods.