Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Merino Sheep

Merino Sheep
Meet the Merino! This domesticated breed of sheep is known for its fine, high quality wool... but it has a lot of other cool characteristics as well, including a history that takes back over a thousand years, as well as a strong presence in the study of livestock genetics.

But first, let's go over some basic facts. Merino sheep are bred almost exclusively for their wool, and that wool is considered to be the finest in the world. It is so desirable that it is actually the wool that all other wool is compared to, as far as grading goes! The breed is also quite hardy and adapts very well to different climates and habitats. For example, they originated in Spain and North Africa, but are now being bred all over the world, including in Australia, Germany, and New England.

The very first Merino ancestors came through North Africa via Asia thanks to the Phonecians. When the Moors entered Spain in the 8th century they brought sheep with them, and by the 12th century the first foundation flocks were in place. These Spanish sheep bred with existing European breeds, and the Merino was the result.

For hundreds of years Spain had a monopoly on these fine quality sheep, and made a large profit off of the wool. Before the 18th century it was against the law to export them, but that all changed when the members of the nobility (including the King) started to send small flocks to other countries and principalities. The Spanish Merinos even became the bases for new breeds, including the popular Rambouillet.

Booroola Merino Ewe with Quadruplets
It was a good thing the Merinos eventually made it out of Spain, because the industry was almost completely obliterated there during the Napoleonic Wars. Since 1810, Australia, the United States, and Germany have been the top countries for the breed. There are now a handful of different strains, including the Peppin, Delaine, and the Booroola.

The Booroola Merino has been studied at a genetic level because they posses a gene called Booroola FecB.   (Named for the Australian ranch that it was discovered on back in the 1950s) This gene has allowed the strain to be one of the most prolifically breeding sheep strains in the world. While most sheep have one or maybe two lambs at a time, Booroola Merinos often have triplets or even quadruplets. Some have even have sextuplets! Introducing Merinos with the FecB gene can substantially increase birthrates without needing to introduce traits from other breeds that have high births, but less desirable wool.

Status : Domesticated
Location : Originated in Spain
Size : Varies, but males can weigh up to 130lbs (59kg)
Classification : Phylum : Chordata -- Class : Mammalia -- Order : Artiodactyla
Family : Bovidae -- Genus : Ovis -- Species : O. aries


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