One of nature’s treasures

The Merino breed of sheep, which produces the finest quality wool, is also thought to be the oldest breed, evolving from species that lived in the wild centuries ago. The breed was certainly known to the Phoenicians, who traded in the fleeces, and the Greeks, who contributed to spreading it around the Mediterranean area. In the eighth century Merino sheep were introduced into Spain by the Moors. The environment proved particularly suited to them, and the animals were welcomed by the local people, who soon came to appreciate the extraordinary properties of their fiber.

This also attracted the attention of the Spanish sovereigns, aristocracy and clergy. As the sheep represented a sure source of income, the royals took possession of all the flocks and categorically forbade them from being sold. Indeed between the fourteenth century, when King Alfonso of Spain initiated the first laws, and the end of the eighteenth century, anyone attempting to export even a single sheep faced the death penalty. Even Christopher Columbus, when he set off on his second voyage for the Indies in 1493, took a cargo of Merino fleeces as a precious commodity for trading.

Well aware of the value of the flocks, in the eighteenth century the Spanish kings presented the animals as royal gifts. Pairs of Merino sheep – which since then have been known as the “gift of kings” – were given to the Elector of Saxony and the royal families of Britain, France and Holland as prized tokens to seal agreements and alliances. And it was the Saxons who began to rear the sheep intensively and develop the characteristics of the breed, with the aim of improving the quality of the wool.

Once there were no laws and restrictions in the way, the breed became more widespread internationally. In 1773, on occasion of his second voyage to New Zealand, Captain James Cook took a pair of Merino sheep with him. Not long after that, in 1797, the breed also arrived in Australia, where it found the ideal conditions to thrive. The ongoing efforts of farmers in Australia and New Zealand ever since have led to the production and exportation of high quality wool becoming a driving force in the economies of these countries.

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