The History of Merino Sheep in New Zealand

Merino lamb meat has a unique, more elegant & subtle flavor than conventional lamb without the typical gameyness.  Here’s some information about the breed’s history.

The Original Spanish Merino – A National Treasure

The Merino sheep breed originated in Spain – appearing in records as far back as the 12th century.  The prevailing belief appears to be that it probably developed from sheep brought to Spain by the Moors.

Merino have been renowned for their superior wool for centuries.  The Spanish government considered them such a precious resource and economic advantage that for a long time exporting Merino sheep from the country was an offense punishable by death.

 

Merino Spread Across the World
At some point the Merino stopped being such a dominating economic force in Spain, and the rules were relaxed to allow export.  The breed spread throughout Europe and was bred for different characteristics in different areas.  There are now a wide variety of Merino types spread across the world.

 

Merino Sheep Arrive in the Colonies

In the 19th century the breed was exported to North America and Australia.  In the 1840s through the early 1860s Merino were brought across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand in large numbers to establish the NZ Merino industry.

Before the advent of refrigerated shipping containers, it wasn’t possible to export lamb meat from Australia and New Zealand to major markets in Europe and the US without it spoiling.  Wool doesn’t spoil, so the primary economic impetus for farmers to raise sheep was for the wool export market – making Merino the breed of choice.

 

The History of Merino in New Zealand

Because the Merino brought over from Australia were sometimes of questionable quality, New Zealand farmers looking to improve the quality of their herd genetics started importing small numbers of animals from Europe and the US.  As a result of these breeding programs by the 1880s New Zealand Merino could be considered a distinct variety from the sheep raised in Australia.

Unfortunately as time went on various economic factors encouraged New Zealand farmers to move away from the Merino breed.

Merino sheep were originally adapted to Spain’s more arid climate.  It turned out that in New Zealand’s more moist environment the breed was prone to an illness known as “footrot”, an infection of the tissue inside the hoof.  This made them less suited to being raised in the lowlands that make up the majority of New Zealand’s sheep country.

A wool production system known as machine worsting was also on the rise – where machines gin & comb long wool to remove abnormally short fibers and force the long ones to lie parallel.  The resulting wool is much more uniform than the kind typically used in sweaters.  Unfortunately, while Merino wool was still considered a superior product in general, its fibers were too delicate for the worsting machines of this era.

Finally, advancements in shipping eventually made meat export possible.  While British sheep breeds were developed for meat production, Merino sheep weren’t considered a meat breed.  Their wool was so superb that breeders had remained singularly focused on improving it for centuries.

As a result of meat export becoming possible and industry demand for wool that was stronger rather than softer, many New Zealand farmers started cross-breeding their Merino herds with British breeds to produce mixed breeds that were less lean, had meat qualities demanded by the primary markets, and coarser wool.

As of the early 2000’s, pure Merino sheep had become a minority breed in New Zealand, accounting for just 3 million of the 39 million sheep raised in the country.  These Merino are primarily raised in New Zealand’s cooler high country, where footrot isn’t a concern.

 

The Discovery of Merino Meat

Merino continued to be raised exclusively as a wool breed until the 1990s, when tougher farming conditions forced the farmers to diversify into the meat market.  Merino meat was simply sold into the commodity meat market as “lamb” without any special fanfare.

Merino lamb’s unique flavor and texture were well known to Merino famers, who dined on it themselves and served it to guests to their farms as a special delicacy.  At some point, all off their guests’ exclamations clicked, and the farmers realized Merino’s unique eating qualities were something that should be trumpeted to the world, not hidden behind a generic label.

In 2011 a special partnership was formed between the Merino farmers’ wool company & meat processors to start the world’s first breed specific program for lamb.  SILERE merino lamb is hand selected for the best eating qualities and showcases the best attributes of this very special breed.

Through the SILERE program, New Zealand chefs have discovered modern Merino’s cleaner, leaner, more elegant flavor and silky texture.  It is quickly becoming a fixture on fine dining menus there.  We are proud to introduce this new delicacy to the American market.

 

Sources:

Hugh Stringleman and Robert Peden. ‘Sheep farming – The Merino – the earliest breed’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Jul-12

URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/sheep-farming/page-3

Encyclopedia Britannica ‘Merino’, Encyclopedia Britannica, updated 04-Jul-08

URL: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/376088/Merino




Post your recipe or comment here: