A Visit to Merino Country

Deep in the heart of the Karoo you'll find some of South Africa's oldest farms, some dating back to the 1700s where sheep are still being farmed.  On an "educational" visit I was hit with a sudden jolt of reality - farm life is not what it used to be, like so much of our society it has had to transform itself to stay alive; to remain competitive and to pay the bills.

The business of breeding sheep is an old one in South Africa and many farms remain in the hands of families who settled and began farming sheep in the 1800s.  The Merino is originally a Spanish breed was introduced to South Africa by the Dutch and  expanded by British settlement especially into the Eastern Cape area with the 1820 Settlers.  Merino is known for having the finest and softest wool.  The Merino has over the years become bred into South African Meat Merino which is a larger animal and is dual purpose.

Farming has declined substantially in South Africa as the economic viability of small farms is no longer secure.  Many farms in the traditional sheep farming areas of the country have been converted to more profitable game farming - which because it requires more land has sucked up much of the land which would have been put to sheep.

Sheep are more likely to be intensively farmed, certainly before they go to market on a pivot irrigation system where they are in smaller paddocks and they get to graze lovely, lush grass all day.  This packs on the pounds and generally improves their condition.  The majority of the sheep though are raised on wild pasture which can be a tough life - predator numbers (jackals and caracal) are still extremely high.  The drought that South Africa has been experiencing over the last few years has placed huge pressure on farmers, the veld condition is stressed and meat prices have fallen thanks to many farmers needing to send their animals to slaughter because grazing is untenable and buying feed is too expensive.  

The sheep are extraordinary though - large and strong and beautifully formed.  Stud rams are selected on many points including their confiormation and their ability to produce twins.  They have long broad bodies - all the better for more wool coverage.  The wool itself is heavily crimped which is a good thing - crimping refers to the number of bends per unit length along the wool fibre which indicates the capacity of spinning.  Fibres with a fine crimp will have many bends and a fine diameter making it sutable for being spun into fine yarns.  Average diameter of the fibre is measured in microns, the lower the number, the finer.  (thanks Wikipedia).

Farm life is deceptively romantic...there is a constant tension at play between the weather, the politics of this country, the economy and land security.  Put all that aside and it's bucolic bliss.  Not for the faint hearted.