Sheep Farmers

Samuel Calvert, 'Sheep-washing at Panshanger Station', 1865? (ALMFA, SLT)

Sheep Farmers or pastoralists were among the first free settlers, arriving from Britain in the 1820s. Prior to this, long-woolled sheep and Bengal type sheep were brought to the island for consumption, and small flocks were kept from 1803. Favourable reports and interest in wool-growing prospects in the island reached Great Britain. Two early governors, Davey and Sorell, influenced and encouraged many free settlers to take up land grants allocated according to their farming skills, animal husbandry expertise, sufficient capital and farm labour, plus recommendation of character. The new arrivals moved into the hinterland to farm the newly discovered lush pastures.

There was great encouragement to improve existing flocks and introduce good wool stock. British Breed sheep from Great Britain and Merinos from Saxony were imported by the Van Diemen's Land Company and the Cressy Company, and Midlands landowners selected smaller numbers from the flocks of King George III and Saxony. Several of these imports with highly regarded pedigrees formed the foundation of the valuable wool industry, with pure bloodlines still in some flocks. A wool export industry to Britain was established in the early 1820s, while Tasmania supplied stock for establishing the sheep industry in South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. The improved sheep flocks grew, and good quality fine wool was in demand. Prices fluctuated over the century, generally high though low in depressions in the 1840s and 1890s, and in the 1850s and 1860s. By the 1870s Tasmania had 1.226 million sheep, many owned by midlands pastoralists on large properties. Scab was a problem, which was overcome after much hard work by pastoralists and the government. Shearing machines were invented in 1890, but were not widely used in Tasmania until after the Second World War.

Due to the isolation of many settlers, there was a need for common ground where they could meet and debate, and find a venue to sell their surplus stock. The result was the formation of several show societies. The Midland Agricultural Association, formed in 1838, still holds the major sheep show of the island, and follows the pattern set by its founders, as a meeting place to show the best of the breed, a venue for new ideas and displays of farming pursuits, an encouraging environment for sheep breeders to come together, and a showcase for wool produce in fashion displays.

Sheep breeding developed as farmers tried selective breeding and culling within their flocks, with wool quality paramount. Sheep Breed Associations became prominent in sheep status and documentation. Two new Australian sheep breeds were developed on the mainland; the Corriedale (1874) was a Merino-British Longwool cross, a large-framed sheep with a good constitution, adaptable to a wide range of climates, with long, dense wool. The Polwarth (1880s), a Merino-Lincoln cross, was a dual-purpose sheep with soft, long and dense wool. It proved suitable to cold conditions in the high country, and had good fertility.

Wool prices remained high in the twentieth century, especially during the First World War, and woollen mills were established in Launceston in the 1920s Kelsall and Kemp, and Patons and Baldwins. Prices fell in the 1930s Depression, but picked up at the end of the decade, and the 1950s and 1960s were boom times for sheep graziers. After another difficult decade in the 1970s, sheep numbers peaked in the 1980s with the highest prices ever, but the 1990s saw a collapse due to the large wool stockpile and poor seasons, resulting in the decline of the sheep flock. Corriedale and Polwarth numbers became depleted, with Merino becoming the dominant breed, and demand for wool to become finer. Sheep breeders used British Breed sheep, now referred to as Prime Lamb Breed sheep, to accommodate the lucrative prime lamb market.

Pastoralists remain proactive in the industry, keen to obtain the best advice and opportunities possible with assistance in wool preparation, access to government advisors, wool brokers and specialist private operators, and to use wool strategy programmes for high production and profits. Tasmanian sheep breeders are well placed to take advantage of market opportunities and access technology for disease and breeding advancements, with quality assurance for wool and meat production. They strive for premium results in a positive, viable and valuable industry which remains one of Tasmania's major agricultural enterprises.

Further reading: I Heazlewood, Old sheep for new pastures, Launceston, 1992; A Nicolson, A sheep for all seasons, Launceston, 2003; N Dennis, Polwarth sheep, Ballarat, 1982; V Taylor, Winton Merino Stud, Melbourne, 1985; P Taylor & V Taylor, Midland Agricultural Association, Launceston, 1988.

Vera Taylor