There are 3 main sheep breeds in Australia:


Australia’s hybrid sheep are mainly produced by crossing merino with the English breeds. However, some of these sheep are now distinct breeds such as the Corriedale and Polwarth. Others are crossbreds or comebacks.

Merino - millions  36.65
97.2  84.1
13.5 81
Other - millions
Comebacks -millions
Crossbreds - millions
Total - millions

Source: ABS

The distinctive features of a Merino are:

The merino originated in Spain about 250 years ago and spread to France, Germany, South Africa and North America. It was brought to Australia in the earliest days of the colony by John MacArthur and who was the first to improve the breed. Merinos quickly followed in the tracks of explorers spreading to Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland. When the Riverina was opened up for settlement, fine woolled merinos were obtained from Victoria and Tasmania but they did not stand up well to the great heat and flystrike.



The Peppin brothers were squatters who owned a great deal of land in the south west Riverina including what is now Wanganella Estate. They carried out stock dealing and breeding and since large numbers of sheep went through their hands they were able to select bigger sheep with stronger fleeces that did not open up along the back to allow fly strike. After about 15 years they produced a distinct strain of merino and all the sheep which have come from those flocks are now called Peppins. About 50% of Australia merinos are the medium wool Peppin type which is particularly suited to the dry interior. Therefore, Australia merinos fall into 2 distinct groups:

The merino is the only sheep bred solely for its wool. The wool is dense, rather short with thin or fine fibres having little twists or crimps in the fibre which interlock in the spinning process. Nutrition as well as strain determines the fineness of the wool, the wool becoming finer as nutrition becomes poorer.

The body of merino is a poor shape being angular and narrow. The neck may be “ewe neck”, the legs are too close together and may be crooked, the back is not straight, while the ribs are not nearly as well sprung as in the English breeds. However, despite its poor shape the merino is hardy and stands heat, cold, hunger and thirst better than other breeds.

Twin lambs are less frequent in merinos and merino ewes will not care for both lambs if twins are born. Therefore, the merino lambing rate is less than for the English breeds. Merinos can be classified according to wool type as follows:

The Corriedale is an attempt to combine the high wool quality of the merino with the larger frame of English longwools. Mr J Little first produced the breed on his New Zealand property Corriedale by crossing merinos with Lincolns and inbreeding until the type was fixed. There should be no horns in either sex but small horns sometimes appear on the rams. The face is broad with wool from the poll to the eyes. The back is level and broad, legs set wide apart and the hindquarters are of good shape. The wool is not as fine as comeback wool but is usually better than crossbreds, varying between 25-35 microns. They are large docile sheep which fatten quickly giving good mutton and therefore, are a good dual purpose breed.
They are sturdy sheep and the ewes bear big lambs, are good mothers. Twins are common so that lambing percentages of 110-120 are obtained. The chief disadvantage is that the wool covering causes more trouble with grass seed and therefore, some growers in the drier districts prefer breeds with less wool around the face and legs.


Crossbreds are merinos usually, crossed with an English breed, the most common being the Border Leicester. The aim is to market lambs with larger frames and heavier at the same age as lambs from the pure meat breeds but with less fat cover. As well as the Border Leicester, Dorset and Poll Dorset rams are used when a high degree of spring joining ability is required. The Romney Marsh may be used in cold climates.

There are now a number of specialist breeders of only firstcross prime lamb mothers. Generally, Border Leicester rams are mated to Merino ewes. Breeders sell the wether portion of the progeny as lamb in a good season or as hogget in a poor season. The ewe portion is grown to the hogget stage and sold to prime lamb breeders as large lines of crossbred ewes.

The prime lamb breeder mates a meat breed ram to crossbred ewes as a terminal sire and all resulting progeny are sold. Main terminal sire breeds are Dorset Horn, Poll Dorset, Suffolk, Southdown and South Suffolk. Other Downs breeds are sometimes used. Merino X Border Leicester ewes are available in large quantities and are highly regarded by importers as ideal for the production of heavy, large framed, fast growing lambs.

First crosses are most popular in the marginal wheat belt areas. Farmers choose for economic reasons to mate some, if not all of their large framed merino ewes with Border Leicester rams to produce the popular crossbred. The resulting ewe lambs become the prime lamb mothers on the improved and irrigated pasture lands in the south and eastern Australia. A large number of first cross ewe hoggets are assembled at saleyards (for example, Narromine) where they are sold to prime lamb breeders.
The wether portion of the drop is held by the breeder until they are from 8 to 12 months old. They are then sold as heavy lambs. This type of stock is popular in the retail meat trade. For the first cross sheep industry to survive, a steady supply of Border Leicester rams are required. Therefore, spaced throughout the wheatbelt are stud breeders of many pure bred sheep and who are very competitive. The well established studs make reasonable returns but newer breeders would not gain any advantage over and above running a commercial flock.


The comeback is not a breed but a hybrid obtained by mating crossbred ewes back to merino rams. The wool is much finer and more valuable than crossbred wool. For example, the Polwarth.


The Polwarth came from Victoria at the end of the last century. It is an inbred comeback and has about 75% merino blood. The fleeces are heavy and have a fibre diameter of about 22-25 microns. They are popular in Victoria where they are used in areas that are too cold for merinos and grazing is poor. A newer breed has been developed called the Polled Polwarth.



The Border Leicester is the most popular English breed in Australia. It probably came from a cross of the English Leicester and the Scottish Cheviot. It is a large sheep with a very broad chest and good hindquarters. The rams pass these characteristics onto their lambs. The legs are strong and free of wool while the face is white, free of wool and has a distinctive roman nose. The wool is strong, with a fibre diameter range of about 32-38 microns. Ewe fleeces average about 6.4kg and the ram about 8.6kg. It is a early maturing breed which fattens fairly quickly.
When crossed with the merino it gives a good fat lamb and if the lambs are not sold as suckers they have a good sale as weaners. The is a constant demand from Victoria for ewe weaners as mothers for fat lambs. The Border Leicester is long legged with clean points giving less trouble with grass seeds. The lambs do well on natural pasture but this advantage is becoming less important with the rapid increase in improved pastures. The Downs breeds give better lambs than Border Leicesters but require improved pasture and do not sell well when carried past the lamb stage.


The Romney Marsh is the most useful of the other long wool breeds because they stand up well to cold, wet conditions having come from the wet Romney marshes of Kent and therefore, they are very resistant to footrot. They are used for crossing with merinos to produce lamb or mutton. Romneys have a topknot of wool and no horns. The face and legs are covered with white hair but the legs are short.
They are a very woolly sheep having about 200mm staple lengths and 33 micron wool. The long staple makes the breed unpopular where there are problems with grass seed contamination.


The Lincoln is the largest, oldest and heaviest breed of English sheep. The wool is very long and strong however, it does not produce the best mutton and the breed is losing favour in Australia. It is still important for the production of Corriedales and Polwarths.


The Leicester has been used to improve other English longwool breeds. It is smaller than the Lincoln, hornless and has a better shaped body. The wool is shorter than Lincolns but finer. They are used to produce mutton carcases when crossed with merinos.



The Cheviot is a Scottish breed, small with a head free of wool like the Border Leicester. It has a very woolly fleece and crosses well with the merino and other breeds such as the Romney Marsh. It is hardy, stands cold well and matures fairly quickly.

Most of the short wool English breeds come from the south of England’s Downs region and therefore are called “the Down breeds”. In all these breeds the wool is almost useless but they have earlier maturity than the long wool breeds and therefore, their chief use is as fat lamb sires.


The Southdown is the most important of the short wool breeds. It is a small sheep with grey wool on its face and legs. It has a very broad head causing lambing problems in the crosses. Therefore, they do not cross well with Merino but do combine well with crossbreds. The Southdown mutton is tender, juicy, fine grained and has a good flavour. It is quick to mature but not as early as the heavier shortwool breeds such as the Suffolk. The wool is typical of the short Downs type.



The Dorset Horn is the earliest maturing of all sheep breeds. Both sexes have long horns and the face and legs are white. The quality of the meat is high but not as good as the Southdown. The chief value of the Dorset horn is in the eastern states where the rapid maturity of the lambs enables them to benefit from the short spring growing seasons in the drier districts. It has typical Downs type wool of about 27 microns and an average staple length of about 90mm.


The Suffolk is a large sheep with a black face, head free of wool and rather long black legs. It comes from a cross between Norfolk horned ewes and Southdown rams and is hornless in both sexes. They are early maturers and good breeders so that the lambs can be ready earlier than for the other breeds except Dorset Horn lambs. However, the black wool makes them unpopular with a number of graziers. It has short wool of about 80mm length and a diameter of about 27 microns.


The Ryeland is a white skinned breed with better quality wool than any of the Downs breeds. It has fairly good conformation and is said to be hardy but is not a popular breed.


The Poll Dorset was developed in Australia in the early 1960s by initially introducing an outside poll breed and then systematically breeding back to the Dorset Horn. As with the Dorset Horn it has the potential to produce a 13.9kg carcass in 9 weeks and up to a 22.7kg carcass in 13 weeks on good grazing. A good Downs wool and when crossed with a wool breed produces an ideal cross bred ewe for prime lamb production.



Texel sheep originated in Europe taking their name from the Isle of Texel in North Holland. The breed was developed in New Zealand and a type suitable for Australian conditions was further developed being released in Australia in 1993. Texel sires offer rapid growth rates, improved fat scores (25-30% leaner than other breeds), a larger eye muscle area and improved liveweight to dressing percentage.

They also provide greater flexibility in the slaughter age of lambs ranging from 10 to 52 weeks of age, improved saleable red meat yields and improved ration conversion.During the past 20 years the annual consumption of lamb in Australia has fallen from about 23.8 kg to 12.3 kg per head of population. This has been largely due to a greater demand for lean meats particularly, white meats such as poultry. The challenge to the red meat industry is to reduce fat levels and improve lean red meat production to meet consumer demand.

Further, producers must improve the production efficiency of prime lamb systems so that the new lamb can match the low prices of white meat.For the above reasons, the Texel has been introduced into the lamb breeding system.
Texel genetics on their own or infused into existing breeds will give producers a chance to improve conversion of dry ration into protein. They will also assist in supplying a heavier, leaner and better yielding carcase.

They are used in three ways; as terminal sires mated to first cross or other traditional ewes to produce lambs for the live export trade, where purebred Texels are put over existing breeds to produce Texel cross females for later joining to Texel sires, and for infusion; where Texel genes are infused into existing English breeds to increase muscling and leanness.


The Dorper breed was developed in South Africa in the 1930's by crossing Blackhead Persian ewes with a Dorset Horn ram. They were bred to produce a high quality carcass under extensive conditions. The Breeding program resulted in the development of the black headed and white headed Dorper. The breed was introduced into Australia in 1996 and has the potential to be developed for domestic and export meat markets.

The animal is characteristically barrel shaped with short, dullish black or white hair on the head. A short, loose light covering of hair and wool (wool predominating on the forequarter) with a natural clean kemp underline, is a typical breed standard

An even distribution of a thin layer of fat compliments the breed.

The Dorper sheds its fleece avoiding the need for mustering for shearing, crutching and fly control.

There is little difference between blackheaded and whiteheaded Dorpers - the choice is a matter of target market preference.

The Dorper are an economical breed because of their excellent feed utilization and conversion, they don't need shearing, crutching and mulesing, and they are disease resistan

Meat production

Purebred Dorper rams reach a liveweight of 90-120 kg and ewes 50-80kg. The Dorper carcass has a good conformation and fat distribution.

Trials and producer experience in Australia indicate that it should be possible to breed Dorper-Merino F1 lambs with a bodyweight of 36kg at 105-120 days, to produce a carcass of about 16kg.


The Dorper is now well adapted in South Africa to a variety of climatic and conditions. It thrives in arid to semi-tropical areas and 100mm-760mm rainfall.


The Dorpers have the ability to thrive in harsh conditions. They were developed to be turned off quickly from arid, extensive grazing conditions in South Africa and have the potential to be produced successfully in a wide range of climatic conditions in Australia.


The Dorper is one of the most fertile of the sheep breeds, with potential lambing intervals of only 8 months. Lambing percentages in excess of 150% (2.25 lambs per annum) are possible and 100% is feasible for most area.

Short lambing intervals have various advantages, of which greater selection possibilities and the sale of larger numbers of lambs are the most important.

Good mothering qualities 

The Dorper ewe is a very good mother and protective of her young. Multiple births are common, with some instances of triplets recorded. Lambs are extremely mobile at birth and survival rates are high.

The Dorper ewe produces a large quantity of milk, aiding lamb survival and early growth.

Good grazing habits 

They are non-selective grazers. Experience so far suggests that Dorpers can adapt to most grazing conditions. There is evidence that they prefer fibre to grains and they respond well to good quality hay.

Purebred lambs will start to graze in the first few days after birth. F1 lambs after about two weeks.

The Dorper can be advantageously incorporated into under-utilized pastures of lesser quality, thus converting a poor asset into profit.

Continuous breeding season 

The Dorper is polyoestrus (can breed continually, with no defined season). Their breeding intervals can be as short as 8 months or 3 times in 2 years. Running rams with ewes continuously is one option that may stimulate reproduction, however it is also likely that ewes will adjust their fertility according to conditions.

Fast growing 

Dorper lambs have an inherent growth potential (ability to graze at an early age) They grow rapidly and can attain a high weaning weight

Dorpers respond well to increased planes of nutrition, giving growers the potential to increase weights rapidly in response to market demands.

Markets can be developed in four key areas:

  • Domestic and international sale of prime lamb meat
  • Export of live ram lambs, primarily to the Middle East
  • Domestic and international sale of purebred breeding stock, positive pregnancy recipients, semen and embryos.
  • Domestic and international sale of by-products, principally skins.

Dorper's fast growth rates allow for early marketing, with the potential to fill market supply shortfalls.


See sheep