Life on the land in Australia


A publication reveals the power and struggle behind Australia’s wool industry.

THE wool industry is such a critical part of Australia’s history that until the late 1980s its economic impact was arguably greater than that of mining.

The industry has featured in epic aspects of Australian history – the 1890s shearers’ dispute that led to the formation of the ALP, the power of the big pastoral dynasties and droughts.

At its heart is the merino sheep. John Macarthur is credited with bringing the merino to Australia in early colonial times, but the breed that came to characterise the industry evolved later.

It was bred in the middle of the 19th century on a property in southern New South Wales – at Wanganella, outside Deniliquin in the Riverina – by a Somerset sheep man, George Peppin. The Peppin merino came to be featured on the old one shilling coin, symbolising the prosperity that sheep had brought the country.

That little-known story has now been laid out in a new history – Wanganella and the Merino Aristocrats by Timothy Lee – that was launched just before Christmas. The book was financed by the property’s owners – Colin, Lewis and Andrew Bell, of Bell Potter Securities – and their two partners, Alastair Provan and Ray Dalio, with the help of local publisher, the late Di Gribble.

”The sheer magnitude of what the Australian Peppin merino did has not been told. There was huge secrecy, there was this huge rivalry of sheep studs. Still today, there is secrecy around sheep breeding, the fierce competitiveness of it – breeders did not want to acknowledge that others’ sheep were better,” Lee, a reporter with the ABC’s rural affairs television program, Landline, told BusinessDay. ”By the 1950s, the Peppin bloodline derived from Wanganella was in about 90 per cent of Australian merino sheep. They derived from this one stud.”

Wanganella was the cradle of the sheep breed that revolutionised the world of agriculture. It’s a story of risk-taking, innovation, sheer hard work, and luck. Lee had access to 80 volumes of stud books that detailed the day-to-day happenings on the estate.

The Peppins owned Wanganella from 1858 for 20 years. In 1861, they were in dire financial straits, but embarked on an experiment to develop a dual-purpose animal: a good meat sheep that also produced large volumes of quality wool.

Until 1860, the wool-growing areas were confined to the ”safe” coastal regions. The Riverina was renowned for its ability to finish and fatten stock for the Melbourne markets, but was mainly unexploited inland plains.

The Australian merino in 1861 was a pretty small animal that weighed about 18 kilograms and produced only a kilogram or so of wool. It wilted in the inland heat and the dust ruined the wool.

The Peppins aimed to breed an animal that would survive in the harsh conditions. ”If you did not have a creek or billabong frontage, if you were 15 kilometres from water, you could not run sheep. It was tough enough for cattle,” Lee said. ”They needed to breed an animal that was hardy and tall so it could walk a distance up to 15 kilometres. It needed long, stapled wool that was three inches or better and needed to be dense to keep the dust and heat out, and provide good insulation.” The animal also needed good mutton meat in case the wool price fell and to provide income at the end of the sheep’s productive life.

The process was essentially trial and error. The Peppins obtained the best genetics they could from overseas. The French allowed the export of merinos they had been breeding at Rambouillet outside Paris. Louis XVI had obtained the sheep from his cousin, the King of Spain, in 1786. The Rambouillet was big and strong with long fleece.

Also imported was a German sheep, the Negretti, which had a dense fleece. ”The Peppins kept experimenting between the two, and when they got a good animal, they would breed it further to fix the traits. Within 20 years, they had a great big, large animal used for mutton that also had this great wool,” Lee said. ”It wasn’t a stroke of genius to get the idea – others did too – but within 20 years, the Peppin breed was becoming the breed. The Peppins had good luck, others didn’t.”

The Peppin merino was large and robust, could walk long distances to feed and water, and the dense wool kept out harmful dust and provided insulation from the heat.

However, George Peppin junior died, aged 50, in 1876, and his brother Fred was not as keen on sheep breeding. He had enough of the harsh conditions of the Riverina.

In 1878, other families took on the stud. Albert Austin and his brother-in-law Thomas Millear – like the Peppins, great sheep men from Somerset – bought one half of the property, Wanganella, while Franc Falkiner bought the other half, the Boonoke portion.

”The Austins reckon they got the best of the deal, the pick of the stud sheep. There was then this fierce rivalry for 70 years,” Lee said.

F. S. Falkiner & Sons, which became the traditional name for the properties, started in 1899. It became the largest merino stud in the world, at its height selling up to 10,000 stud rams a year.

The Peppin merino’s long, bulky fleece found its way to the world’s textile mills. By the 1870s, woollen clothes in the form of tweed had changed global fashion.

Meanwhile, by the 1890s, the capital of the biggest 40 pastoral properties was estimated at £30 million, equal to the rateable area of Melbourne at that time. Wanganella and Boonoke were integrally involved in the great shearers’ dispute that led to the formation of the Australian Workers Union and the ALP.

By 1910, the Peppin merino was being exported to 12 countries, including South Africa and even central Africa, which had never had sheep before. ”It was such a hardy sheep, but could adapt to anywhere, with fantastic wool, the wool for most of the wool trade,” Lee said.

In 1924, a Wanganella ram sold for 500 guineas, equivalent to $1 million for a yearling racehorse now – such was the prosperity and prestige of the wool industry.

In the ensuing decades, Wanganella went through the peaks and troughs of the wool trade. Then in 1978, still intact but struggling at the height of drought, the corporate sector lent a hand. Rupert Murdoch bought the property for $3.5 million in cash.

He invested in irrigation and other infrastructure, keeping the stud and structure preserved throughout drought and the collapse of the wool price in 1991. The Bell brothers and partners bought the property from News Corp in 2000 for $29 million.

”The property is still in the same make-up as in the Peppins’ [time] because of corporate ownership. Few family-wool enterprises from then are still in the same formation. If not for the corporate money, the stud may have been broken up and the properties dispersed,” Lee said.

News Corp included a clause in the sale contract to the Bells that Wanganella’s heritage had to be preserved, that the property could not be split up.

Wanganella remains a property of 120,000 hectares, with sheep, cattle, and summer and winter crops. On the 150th anniversary of its founding, with wool prices rising, a Wanganella hornless poll merino ram sold for a record price of $50,000 at the annual sale in September. ”It’s not a hobby farm and has not been turned into a nature reserve,” Colin Bell told BusinessDay.

January 9th, 2012
Topic: ANIMALS & STOCK, BOOKS PAPERS, Sheep Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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