It’s often said that Australia rode to prosperity “on the sheep’s back”, and sheep farming continues to hold a special place in the national heart.
Here are 10 interesting facts about the sheep industry that you might not be aware of, from a rise in lamb exports to dressing the gondoliers of Venice
1. After two decades of steep decline, the Australian wool industry bounced back in 2017, with prices for super fine wool peaking at $17 a kilogram. According to Australian Wool Innovation, most of the recent price increase is due to rising demand from a newly affluent middle class in China, which buys more than 80% of Australia’s wool exports.
2. Wool prices still have a long way to go to reach the early 1950s peak when wool fetched $37 a kilogram, more than three times the average weekly wage for a factory worker. Now that’s what you’d call a wool boom! The price was largely due to demand for uniforms driven by the Korean War.
3. Venice’s gondoliers have become unofficial marketers for fine Australian wool. In a deal between the Woolmark Company and a high-end Italian clothing company, the distinctive blue and white striped gondolier’s uniform, including a polo short, a jersey and a vest, is now made of 100% Australian merino wool.
4. Australia has nearly 70 million sheep. In 2015-16, the average Australian sheep flock was 2,857 head.
5. Sheep guts used to be made into string for tennis rackets. These days, cows are the preferred source of gut for stringing, in part because sheep guts are so valuable for sausage making.
6. According to ABARES, the lamb industry accounted for around 6% ($3.2 billion) of Australia’s gross value of agricultural production in 2015–16, and around 4% ($1.8 billion) of agricultural export income. Lamb exports to South Korea grew 42% in 2017, largely due to the growth in lamb barbecue/skewer outlets.
7. As well as being a natural waterproofing agent, the lanolin in wool has antibacterial and antifungal properties that make it valuable in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.
8. The world is rediscovering the benefits of wool: it’s insulating, fire and wrinkle resistant and durable. Wool fibres can absorb up to 30% of their own weight in moisture, making fine woollen garments uniquely able to handle body moisture in both hot and cold environments.
9. Studies published in the British Journal of Dermatology have shown that wearing wool next to the skin can be helpful for eczema sufferers.
10. Knox Private Hospital in Melbourne presents a branded merino swaddling bag to the parents of each newborn baby. The Merineo– a cross between merino and neonatal – was the brainchild of a Victorian sheep farmer Claire Hausler, following the birth of her son Jack.