A history of Australian Sheep Farming


Sheep farming in Australia has a rich history that spans over 200 years. It all began in 1788 when the First Fleet of convicts arrived in Sydney, bringing with them a small flock of sheep. These sheep were used primarily for food and clothing, but their numbers quickly grew as more ships arrived with more sheep on board.

In the early days of sheep farming in Australia, the focus was on wool production. The harsh Australian climate and rugged terrain made it difficult to grow crops, so sheep were seen as a viable alternative. The wool industry quickly took off, and by the 1820s, Australia was exporting wool to Britain and other parts of the world.

In the 1850s, a new breed of sheep called the Merino was introduced to Australia. The introduction of Merino sheep to Australia is credited to Captain John MacArthur, a British army officer and wool pioneer. John MacArthur established an agricultural property in New South Wales, Australia, where he raised Merino sheep and cultivated crops. His farm played a crucial role in the development of the wool industry in Australia.

The Merino was well-suited to the Australian climate and produced high-quality wool. This led to an increase in wool production and a boom in the sheep farming industry. By the late 1800s, Australia was the world's leading wool producer, with over 70 million sheep.

The highest recorded price for a single Merino sheep was AUD$1 million (approximately USD$750,000). It was sold by the breeder and woolgrower, Ian Jones, at an auction in New South Wales, Australia in 2018. The buyer of the sheep was not publicly disclosed.

During the early 1900s, sheep farming in Australia underwent significant changes. The use of new technologies, such as mechanical shearing and improved breeding techniques, increased efficiency and productivity. Additionally, the introduction of refrigeration allowed for the export of frozen lamb and mutton to other countries.

This technology greatly increased production. The world record for shearing a sheep is held by Australian shearer Ivan Scott, who sheared 899 lambs in 9 hours and 40 minutes, or an average of 94 lambs per hour, on February 6, 2004. This record was achieved in New Zealand and still stands as the fastest time for shearing a sheep. The skill and speed required for this feat have made it a popular competition in countries with a strong wool industry, such as Australia and New Zealand.

The sheep farming industry faced a major setback during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The demand for wool and lamb dropped, and many farmers were forced to sell their sheep at low prices. Many farmers were forced to leave the industry, and sheep numbers dropped to around 60 million.

After World War II, the sheep farming industry began to recover. The demand for wool and lamb increased, and new markets were opened up in Asia and Europe. The industry also started to diversify, with farmers starting to produce other products such as cheese and lamb meat.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the industry faced another challenge in the form of changing consumer preferences. Increasing demand for beef and decreasing demand for lamb and wool led to a decline in sheep numbers. However, the industry adapted by focusing on producing high-quality, premium cuts of lamb and wool, which helped to maintain profitability.

In more recent times, the sheep farming industry in Australia has faced a number of challenges, including drought, disease, and competition from other industries. Despite these challenges, the industry has remained resilient and continues to be an important part of the Australian economy.

In terms of sheep numbers, Australia is currently the fifth-largest sheep-producing country in the world, with a flock of around 77 million sheep. The industry continues to be a major contributor to the economy, with exports of wool, lamb, and other sheep-derived products worth billions of dollars each year.

Some of the largest players in the industry include.

  1. Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) - one of the largest beef and sheep producers in Australia, with properties covering over 6.3 million hectares.
  2. Kilcoy Pastoral Company - a Queensland-based company that operates multiple properties and is one of the largest sheep and cattle producers in Australia.
  3. Elders Limited - an agribusiness company that operates a significant sheep and wool division, with multiple properties throughout Australia.
  4. Consolidated Pastoral Company - an Australian company that operates large-scale cattle and sheep stations in northern Australia.

Whilst these are some of the largest sheep farming operations in Australia, there are many others as well. It's worth noting that the size of these operations can change quickly and that this list may not be exhaustive or up-to-date.

AACo is the operator of Auctions Plus, one (if not the) largest online livestock traders. They provide a platform for livestock producers to buy and sell sheep, cattle, goats. They also deal in fodder, machinery and clearing sales. The platform allows for auctions conducted in real-time. 

The Farmers Lot offers a different approach, we are a far cheaper alternative and we offer additional features including the option of a permanent storefront that allows you to sell a wide product range under one banner. You can publish and edit your adds at your whim and there is extensive personalisation. If you have skills (shearing, fencing, cropping etc) or sell livestock, produce (fresh meat, fruit & Veg, fodder, grains etc) or even farming equipment and consumables you can sell it on The Farmers Lot.

To be fair Auctions Plus has a number of features we don't currently offer including requiring independent assessment of livestock before listing and requiring the use of a licenced livestock agents to represent you in sales. Auction Plus use a templated advertisment detailing various livestock metrics which may be attractive to some, though offers less autonomy than the Farmers Lot, and of course as their name suggests they facilitate auctions.

In conclusion, sheep farming in Australia has a long and rich history, dating back to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Over the centuries, the industry has faced many challenges, but has adapted and evolved to remain an important part of the Australian economy. Today, the industry continues to play a vital role in the country's economy, providing jobs and income for many rural communities and contributing to the export industry.


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