Only the Finest WoolJune 26, 2014

In Australia, there's no end to the jokes on sheep. (What do you call four sheep tied to a lampost in Sydney? An Australian leisure centre.) Aussies may have suffered for this for years, but they should be proud of Australia being the largest producer of wool. It started with John Macarthur, the wool pioneer.

Macarthur arrived in Sydney on June 28, 1790, leaving behind a distinguished military career. During that time, Spain was renowned for its wool products. Credit to the Merino, which originated from the Castille. This economically breed of sheep was highly prized for its wool. Macarthur wasn't aiming for something big when he first raised a flock of sheep, but he knew the Merino wool was the finest and softest. It didn't take long for him to figure out its export potential. It couldn't come at a right time, as the supply of Merino wool to Great Britain was cut off by the Napoleonic Wars.

Macarthur lobbied for support for his interest in London. He was a quarrelsome fellow, but the native of Rose Hill knew this wasn't an opportunity to miss, aware of how Merino wool fibers were hydrophilic and non-perishable. Moreover, they were tolerant of extreme conditions Down Under. Eventually, he got what he wished for, more lands and rams. He didn't attempt to cross-breed the Merino, which was the right thing to do. It wasn't long before Macarthur became the biggest herder of his time. Many followed his lead, which put Australia in the map. She would surpass Spain, ending as top producer. It's a position she wouldn't cede.

Nowadays, Australia account for twenty five percent of the world's wool production. In second place is New Zealand, another member of the Commonwealth of Nations, her landscape not so different from Australia's. It also endure years of jokes on sheep:

"You may not know that before I moved to the UK, I worked on a farm in New Zealand, shearing sheep. One day I walked into the woolshed and to my horror discovered a workmate being extremely familiar with one of our woolly friends.

'MATE!' I said, 'you're supposed to be SHEARING that sheep!'

With a grin (and a grunt) he replied 'I'm not sharing Matilda with ANYONE!'"

Organic wool is becoming a trend nowadays, limited supply coming from Australia and New Zealand. The two, along with China, are the top three producing nations. The industry now and then was hardly different, with about eighty five percent of the wool being sold by open cry auction. A historical group in Queensland planned to create a wool track, highlighting the history of the industry, for tourists. Jocelyn Avery, the group spokeswoman, hoped visitors would drive roads and learn about sheep stations and shearing history along the way.

"I believe the wool industry in Queensland has been much neglected, particularly in the Longreach region," she said.

"The wool industry flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, and the region here wouldn't be the same today, only for the wool industry."

Macarthur would agree.

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