Angus Dean
Angus Dean

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Aussie Sheep Station

"Australia rides on the back of a sheep" was an apt expression for most of the last two centuries. The first merino sheep were introduced to Australia in 1797. The hunger of sheep farmers for new lands on which to graze their animals drove the expansion of European settlements across Australia. Squatters, as the farmers came to be known, were continually fanning out beyond the established settlements and claiming vast new territories for their herds. By the 1880s, the value of wool far exceeded the value of all other Australian exports, and "Woolgold" was a serious contender in the naming of the country's capital city -- although Canberra eventually won out.

Aussie sheep stations can be vast. Anna Creek Station, owned by the Kidman family, is now the biggest in Australia, and covers 7.7 million acres, an area larger than Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. In parts of Western Australia, a million-acre spread is considered nothing special, with the nearest neighbors perhaps hundreds of miles away. Medical care is provided by the Royal Flying Doctor's Service, weather permitting, and young children receive their schooling over the radio, and mail in their homework. Older children are sent to boarding schools.

The sheep tend to run loose for most of the year, and herds can be as large as 40,000 heads. Each spring, the sheep are rounded up and brought to a shearing house. The shearing is done by contract workers, who are paid by the fleece. A "gun shearer" regularly clips more than 150 heads a day. Big Jackie Howe, back in the 1890s, used to draw crowds to watch him clip 250 sheep a day. He set the world record at Alice Downs Station in 1892, when he sheared 321 ewes during an eight-hour day. Electricity has made life easier for the shearers -- and the world record is now held by Alan MacDonald, a New Zealander, who sheared 805 lambs during a nine-hour stretch in 1990.

Today, there are 700,000 people connected to the Australian wool industry, and some 160 million sheep. Australia is the world's leading producer of wool, supplying one-third of the world's supply, and three-quarters of the fine wool used in clothing. Despite these statistics, the Australian sheep business is in trouble. The ample supply and reduced demand for wool, during the last decade, have led to a sharp drop in prices, and nine out of ten sheep farmers say they are losing money.



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