AskDefine | Define merino

Dictionary Definition

merino n : white sheep originating in Spain and producing a heavy fleece of exceptional quality [syn: merino sheep]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A breed of Spanish sheep that has long, fine hair
  2. The wool of this sheep
  3. The fabric made from this wool (or from any similar yarn)
  4. A yarn made from a combination of wool and cotton in imitation of this wool


*1919, Ronald Firbank, Valmouth, Duckworth, hardback edition, page 5
  • The Priest pulled the light merino carriage rug higher about his knees.

Extensive Definition

The Merino is the most economically influential breed of sheep in the world, prized for its wool. Super fine merinos are regarded as having the finest and softest wool of any sheep. Recently the low price of wool has led to more emphasis on the market and sale of the animal's meat. Poll merinos have no horns (or very small stubs, known as scurs), and horned merino rams have long, spiral horns which grow close to the head.


There are two proposed origins for the Spanish word:
  • Merino may be an adaptation to the sheep of the name of a Castilian official inspector (merino) over a merindad, who may have also inspected sheep pastures. This word is from the medieval Latin majorinus, a steward or head official of a village, from major, meaning great.
  • Merino may be from the name of a Berber tribe, the Marini (or in Castilian, Benimerines), which intervened in the Iberian peninsula during the 12th and 13th centuries.


The merino is an excellent grazer and very adaptable. It is bred predominantly for its wool, and its carcase size is generally smaller than that of sheep bred for meat. The South African Meat Merino (SAMM) and merinofleischschaf have been bred to balance wool production and carcase quality.
Merino wool is finely crimped and soft. Staples are commonly 2.5–4 inches (65–100 mm) long. A Saxon merino produces 3 to 6 kg of greasy wool a year while a good quality Peppin merino ram produces up to 18 kg. Merino wool is generally less than 24 micrometres (microns, µm) in diameter. Basic Merino types include: strong (broad) wool 23-24.5 µm, medium wool is 19.6-22.9 µm, fine 18.6-19.5 µm, superfine 15-18.5 and ultra fine 11.5-15 µm. Ultra fine wool is suitable for blending with other exclusive fibres such as silk and cashmere. New Zealand retails luxury, lightweight knits made from Merino wool and possum fur from possums which are a pest there.
The term merino is widely used in the textile industries with very varied meanings. Originally it denoted the wool of Merino sheep reared in Spain, but due to the superiority of Australian and New Zealand wools the term now has broader use. In the dress-goods and knitting trades the term "Merino" still implies an article made from the very best soft wool.

Regions of merino husbandry

In Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the western United States where sheep are bred for their wool rather than their mutton, merino sheep dominate. Australia produces about 80% of the world's Merino wool. In Australia and New Zealand Merino ewes are crossed with Border Leicesters and other English long wool breeds to produce first cross prime lamb mothers and prime lamb wethers. The prime lamb mothers are crossed again with Poll Dorsets and other short wool breeds and the resultant second cross lambs slaughtered as prime lambs.


The Phoenicians introduced sheep from Asia Minor into North Africa, and the foundation flocks might have been introduced into Spain as late as the 12th century by the Beni-Merines, a tribe of Arabic Moors. In the 13 and 14 century genetic material from England was introduced , this influence was openly documented by Spanish writers at the time.
Spain became noted for its fine wool (spinning count between 60s and 64s) and built up a fine wool monopoly during the 12th and 16th century, with wool commerce to Flanders and England being a source of income for Castile in the Late Middle Ages.
Most of the flocks known as cabanas or cavanas were owned by nobility or the church; the sheep grazed the Spanish southern plains in winter and the northern highlands in summer. The Mesta was an organisation of privileged sheep owners who developed the breed and controlled the migrations.
The three great studs that founded most of the world's merino flocks were the Royal Escurial flocks, the Negretti and the Paula. The infantado, Montarcos and Aguires studs had an influence on the Vermont bloodlines.
Before the 18th century the export of merinos from Spain was a crime punishable with death. In the 18th century a new era began, small exportation of merinos from Spain and local sheep were used as the foundation of merino flocks in other countries. In 1723 some were exported to Sweden, but the first major consignment of Escurials was sent by Ferdinand VI of Spain to his cousin, Prince Xavier the Elector of Saxony, in 1765. Further exportation of Escurials to Saxony occurred in 1774, to Hungry in 1775 and to Prussia in 1786. Later in 1786 Louis XVI of France received 366 sheep selected from 10 different cavanas, these founded the stud at the Royal Farm at Rambouillet. The Rambouillet stud enjoyed some 'undisclosed' genetic development with some English long-wool genes contributing to the size and wool-type of the French sheep. Though Emperor the Rambouillet stud had an enormous influence on the development of the Australian Merino.
Sir Joseph Banks procured two rams and four ewes in 1787 by way of Portugal and in 1792 purchased 40 Negrettis for King George III, to found the royal flock at Kew. In 1808, 2000 Paulas were imported. The King of Spain also gave some Escurials to the Dutch government in 1790; these thrived in the Dutch Cape Colony (South Africa). In 1797 Governor King, Colonel Patterson, Captain Waterhouse and Kent purchased sheep from the widow of Colonel Gordon, commander of the Dutch garrison in Cape Town. When Waterhouse landed in Sydney he sold his sheep to Captain John MacArthur, Samuel Marsden and Captain William Cox.
In 1804 John Macarthur (who had been sent back from Australia to England following a duel with Colonel Patterson) brought seven rams and one ewe from the first dispersal sale of King George III stud. In 1805 Macarthur and the sheep returned to Australia, Macarthur to reunite with his wife Elizabeth who had been developing their flock in his absence. Macarthur is considered the father of the Australian merino industry however in the long term his sheep had very little influence on the development of the Australian merino.
From 1765 the Germans in Saxony crossed the Spanish Merino with the Saxon sheep to developed a dense, fine type of Merino (spinning count between 70s and 80s) adapted to its new environment. By 1802 the region had four million Saxon Merino sheep, and was becoming the centre for stud Merino breeding, and German wool was the finest in the world.
In 1802, Colonel David Humphreys, United States Ambassador to Spain, initiated the Vermont strain into North America with an importation of 21 rams and 70 ewes from Portugal and a further importation of 100 infantado Merinos in 1808. The British embargo on wool and wool clothing exports to the U.S. prior to the 1812 British/U.S. war led to a "Merino Craze" with William Jarvis of the Diplomatic Corps importing at least 3500 sheep between 1809 to 1811 through Portugal.
The Napoleonic wars (1793-1813) almost destroyed the Spanish merino industry. The old cavanas were dispersed or slaughtered. From 1810 onwards the merino scene shifted to Germany, the United States and Australia. Between 1810 and 1840 Australia was engaged in a wool trade war with Germany while importing German sheep. By 1840 Australia had won the war mainly because of Germany's preoccupation with fineness.
By 1801 Australia had 33,818 sheep. Macarthur pioneered the introduction of Saxon merinos with importation from the Electoral flock in 1812. The first Australian wool boom occurred in 1813 when the Great Dividing Range was crossed. During the 1820s there was increasing interest in Merino sheep. In October 1820 Macarthur showed and sold 39 rams, grossing £510/16/5. By 1830 the Australian sheep population was nearly 2 million. In 1823, at the first sheep show held in Australia, a gold medal was awarded to W. Riley ('Raby') for importing the most Saxons, W. Riley also imported Cashmere Goats into Australia. In 1841, John Murray at Mt Crawford in South Australia established a flock of Camden-blood ewes mated to Tasmanian rams. To broaden the wool and give the animals some size it is thought some English Leicester blood was introduced. The resultant sheep were the foundation of many South Australian strong wool studs. The Peppin brothers took a different approach to producing a hardier, longer stapled, broader wool sheep. After purchasing Wanganella Station in the Riverina they selected 200 station bred ewes that thrived under local conditions and purchased 100 South Australian ewes bred at Cannally that were sired by an imported Rambouillet ram. The Peppin brothers mainly used Saxon and Rambouillet rams importing four Rambouillet rams in 1860. One of these, 'Emperor,' cut an 11.4 kg (5.1Kg clean) fleece. They ran some Lincoln ewes but their introduction into the flock is undocumented.
In the 1880s, Vermont rams were imported into Australia from the U.S., since many Australian studmen believed these sheep would improve wool cuts, their use spread rapidly. Unfortunately the fleece weight was high but the clean yield low, the greater grease content increased the risk of fly strike, they had lower uneven wool quality, and lower lambing percentages. Their introduction had a devastating effect on many famous fine-wool studs.

Animal welfare developments

In Australia, mulesing of merino sheep is a common practice to reduce the incidence of flystrike. It has been attacked by animal rights and animal welfare activists, with PETA running a campaign against the practice in 2004. The PETA campaign targeted U.S. consumers by using graphic billboards in New York City. PETA threatened U.S. manufacturers with television advertisements showing their companies' support of mulesing. Fashion retailers Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Gap Inc and Nordstrom and George (UK) stopped stocking Merino wool products.
In 2008 mulesing once again became a topical issue in Sweden with a documentary on mulesing shown on Swedish television. This was followed by allegations of bribery and intimidation by Australian government and wool industry officials, the allegations were disputed by the wool industry. Several Swedish and European clothing retailers, including H&M, Zara (clothing), and Lindex now no longer stock merino products.
New strains of merinos that don't require mulesing are being promoted in South Australia. 'Thin-skinned' sheep from western Victoria are also being promoted as a solution.

See also


External links

merino in German: Merinoschaf
merino in Spanish: Oveja merina
merino in Esperanto: Merino
merino in French: Mérinos
merino in Icelandic: Merinófé
merino in Georgian: მერინოსი
merino in Dutch: Merino
merino in Polish: Merynosy
merino in Portuguese: Merino
merino in Romanian: Merinos de Transilvania
merino in Finnish: Merinolammas
merino in Swedish: Merino
merino in Turkish: Merinos
merino in Ukrainian: Австралійський меринос
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