04 June 2011

Australia rode on the sheep's back

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia created a historical film for students called Riding On the Sheep’s Back. From the very beginning of colonial settlement here, the selective breeding of Merino ewes resulted in sheep that adapted well to Australia’s arid interior. Merinos produced wool that was soft, plentiful and appealing to Britain's mills. So from the first boom of the Napoleonic Wars, which largely destroyed the Spanish Merino industry, the pastoral industry in Australia enjoyed a long period of prosperity. There were c2 million sheep in Australia by 1830.

In summary the wool industry gave Australia one of the highest living standards in the world for over 100 years. It was no exaggeration to say that the Australian economy rode high on wealth from primary exports, especially sheep.

Sheep grazing

A culture grew out of the practice of sheep shearing, most publicly exhibited in state-wide agricultural shows and shearing competitions. In the early decades, wool was shorn, carded and washed by hand. After 1888 machine shearing was introduced, reducing second cuts and shearing time. By the time World War One took all the abled bodied men off the land, most large sheep station sheds in Australia had installed machines, driven at first by steam and later by internal combustion engines.

It is not surprising that one of the all-time favourite Australian paintings was and is Shearing the Rams 1890, a large painting by the nation’s favourite Impressionist artist, Tom Roberts. Shearing the Rams has been reproduced in stamps, posters, history books and art folders ever since Federation, the day (1/1/1901) the separate states came together as a unified, modern nation.

Nothing says "Australian Rural Life" as much as Robert’s rams. And no agricultural show booth is as enticing as those selling local wool products. To give one example, Bennett & Gregor hold sales stalls at agricultural shows and fairs - spouse and I bought matching scarves for all the grandchildren.

Tom Roberts. Shearing the Rams 1890
122 x 183 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

By the 1950s Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’; those who raised the sheep and gathered the wool had come to symbolise and epitomise what it was to be Australian. In fact the struggle to survive in the rugged bush environment was said to have moulded the very character of the Australian battler. Of course the ruggedness also reflected the need to survive droughts, bush fires and infestations of small and large animal life, but that doesn’t diminish the back breaking work of shearing sheep in the heat.

Yet within a decade, coal, iron ore and other minerals had replaced wool as the basis of Australia’s economic future; wool farmers struggled to sell their product on world markets and the people of the bush now found themselves marginalised and out of touch with city-based Australian citizens. Young people of my children’s and grandchildren’s generation had never seen millions of sheep being grazed, dipped or sheared.

Turlee Station Stay is a working sheep, cattle and wheat station located next to Mungo National Park, in outback New South Wales. Situated within the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, the station is huge by any standards: 145,000 acres.

wool products at Bennett & Gregor stall, at agricultural shows

Accommodation ranges from basic tents and caravans to lovely cabins and cottages. But the parts of the station-life that children love most are a] the demonstrations of fantastic Australian sheep dogs rounding up the sheep and b] shearing the sheep in the long sheds. Adults are said to enjoy the fully licensed restaurant, aptly titled Woolshed Baa Bar :)

One kelpie dog controlled 20 sheep


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
It is so extraordinary how the entire economy of a nation, and one as vast as Australia, can alter so radically within the space of a very few years. Almost unthinkable, and one is left wondering what lies ahead.

But how reassuring that not all traditions are lost for all time, thanks to such places as the Turlee Station Stay where clearly the past, in historical terms, is kept very much alive.

BigJack said...

My children loved a similar farm, but they were surprised and a bit disappointed when the wool came off the sheep as raw wool. They expected it to come off, fully dyed and knitted up in the shape of a football jumper.

They actually loved the working dogs even more than the sheep. Do you have a photo of sheep dogs in action?

Hels said...

Jane and Lance
"nod" sadly a huge part of the economy can fall over in a heart beat. Bali had an enormous tourist industry until the 2002 bomb massacres. Spain's fruit and veg were trusted by the entire world until these weird e coli deaths.

I suppose we can celebrate a very important contribution to Australian history and culture via paintings, music, literature, museums and excursions for school children. But it is sad nevertheless.

Hels said...

the sheep dogs are fantastic. Even the puppies have an ability to control sheep 50 times their size. I will add an image straight away.

P. M. Doolan said...

Thanks for bringing back good memories of my only visit to Australia, over ten years ago. We stayed in a cabin overlooking a deserted beach on the Indian Ocean, on a sheep farm with over a million acres (and a few thousand sheep). The size was mind-boggling for a European.

Andrew said...

Now half our economy is built on what can be dug out of the ground and the other half on a growing population who need housing. Bring back the sheep I say. Although I am sure you know lamb prices are good at the moment (by what you pay for lamb), but so is wool.

Hels said...

Mr Doolan

you must come again. Once in a life time isn't enough time to see the whole continent, or even a quarter of it. But I will admit that staying in a cabin on a huge sheep farm, overlooking a deserted beach on the Indian Ocean, sounds very decent :)

Take 6 months, starting in the tropics in our winter (July) and working your way to the very south by Christmas.

Hels said...

There is something heartbreaking about seeing land dug up and then, when the metals have run out, abandoned. Not to mention our carbon footprint and our contribution to climate change.

But mostly there is nothing as serene as sheep knee deep in grass, trees, vines, vegetables, orchards etc etc

Hermes said...

Fascinating as usual. I think a lot of the NZ Merino's came originally from Australia. I think imports here were mainly fleeces (which depressed prices) until the refrigerated ships came in and meat came over to. Scrapie is interesting too.

This is an odd bit of history I found today:


Hels said...


thanks mate :) That document, called Australian Aborigines in Victorian Britain, deserves to be written up in its own separate blog post.

It reminds me very much of the World Fairs that set aside space for "real" African or other exotic villages, complete with cows, huts, shamans and snake charmers. It gave the Europeans a chance to see what real life was like in Africa (or the South Pacific, Middle East etc etc) without leaving home.

Now, back to sheep for one second. I think the reason sheep were kept for wool rather than meat was because farmers could shear the Merinos year after year after year. The long term return per head was far greater than it would have been for a young animal slaughtered for meat at 12 months old.

In any case, just about every country in the world could grow sheep for meat. But only Australia and a few other countries could supply endless amounts of TOP quality wool for mills in the motherland.

Hermes said...

Lots of questions here. How did importing this fine wool affect British sheep farmers and how did they react? Scabies for some reason came late to NZ but was endemic in Britain - not sure about Australia. Good point about the shearing.

The history of refrigeration is surprisingly fascinating:


Hels said...


it is ironic that England produced excellent raw wool in medieval to early modern days, but always lacked the skilled craftsmen to make the finest quality cloth.
No doubt the wool growers and wool merchants in England were making truckloads of money, but the real value-adding was going on in Flanders, Italy or France.

So had the situation turned itself around by the early 19th century? Why was England (and perhaps other parts of Britain) now importing raw wool from Australia and processing it into the final products in British mills? Your question is a good one - how did the British sheep farmers react?

Thanks for the reading. I am giving up sleep from now on, so I will have plenty of time to catch up with reading :)

J Bar said...

Beautiful shot of the sheep grazing.

Hels said...

agreed. Some scenes are so iconically Australian that they represent the good years, the times when Australia really did ride on the sheep's back. Sheep quietly grazing is one of those scenes.

Wanderlust said...

Hi Hels, followed you over from Blogcatalog. I've spent quite a bit of time in Australia but have never visited a sheep farm. I did while in NZ and watched the dogs work the sheep, which was fascinating. I have little desire to visit the mining towns, though I've driven all over the Outback and it is simply stunning. Too beautiful for words. I'm planning on relocating there in the near future, so perhaps I'll have an opportunity to visit one of the old sheep stations.

Hels said...

Ms Wander

by relocating to Australia, do you mean you will be a New Immigrant? Excellent! Which part of this wide brown land do you hope to settle in?

Anonymous said...

Really great article Helen!
I have always admired Roberts' 'Shearing the Rams,' and you provided a link between this and the Aussie battler stereotype! I was so happy when I read that, as I have searched so hard to find a real 'cause' for it.
Great information :)

Hels said...


great to hear you enjoyed it. The trouble with national mythologies is that they are hard to deconstruct. With all the Australian sheep industries (growing sheep, shearing, processing wool, exports, marketing etc), it is probably easier.