Origin: Wild Sheep
It is believed that selective breeding for woolly sheep began around 6000 BCE, with efforts to obtain white-fleeced sheep beginning in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC.
By the Bronze Age (2300-600 BCE) sheep with characteristics similar to the modern breeds were widespread throughout Western Asia.
Sheep Make Their Way Around the World
From Asia sheep were introduced via trading to North Africa and to Europe.
By about 500 BCE in Greece, sheep and wool are established enough to be mentioned in writing.
Virgil, Varro and Columella each describe sheep breeding processes and wool fabric production, mentioning the existence of sheep farms with as much as 10,000 sheep.
Development of the Wool Industry
In the Middle Ages, wool trading flourished in Europe, notably in the areas that make up today’s Belgium, The Netherlands, England, France and Italy.
The most important raw wool producers were Spain and England while the best processors were Italy and Belgium and The Netherlands.
The English monarchy would sell England’s wool for years in advance when in need of funds.
Spanish sheep were brought to America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. These sheep became the ancestors of today’s Churros breed.
Via Hernan Cortez, sheep spread through Mexico and the western United States.
Merino Sheep and the Merino Wool Industry
The Merino originated in Spain, introduced in the 12th century by a tribe of Arabic Moors called the Beni-Merines.
These sheep were so valuable to the Spanish that prior to 1700 selling them was punishable by death.
As the Spanish Empire declined, however, these sheep were gifted or sold. It was the Dutch who brought Merinos to their colonies in South Africa. In 1788 several Cape Fat Tail sheep were sold to voyagers going to Australia.
One of the voyagers, Captain John Macarthur, is credited with beginning selective Merino breeding in Australia.
By 1810, Australia had more than over 30,000 sheep and was one of the world’s foremost Merino wool trade centres. (The other two were the United States and Germany.)
Only 30 years later Australia dominated Merino sheep production, although South Africa and New Zealand also had large Merino flocks.
The rest of the world focused on cross-bred and coarser-wool sheep breeds.