The Merino is an economically influential breed of sheep prized for its wool. The breed origins are probably in North Africa, from where it was introduced to Spain although there were reports of the breed in the Iberian peninsula before the arrival of the Marinids; perhaps these came from the Merinos or tax collectors of the Kingdom of León. Its wool was already very highly valued in the Middle Ages.
The very first Merino ancestors came through North Africa via Asia thanks to the Phonecians. When the Moors entered Spain in the 8th century they brought sheep with them, and by the 12th century the first foundation flocks were in place. These Spanish sheep bred with existing European breeds, and the Merino was the result.
For hundreds of years Spain had a monopoly on these fine quality sheep, and made a large profit off of the wool. Before the 18th century it was against the law to export them, but that all changed when the members of the nobility (including the King) started to send small flocks to other countries and principalities. The Spanish Merinos even became the bases for new breeds, including the popular Rambouillet.
It was a good thing the Merinos eventually made it out of Spain, because the industry was almost completely obliterated there during the Napoleonic Wars. Since 1810, Australia, the United States, and Germany have been the top countries for the breed. There are now a handful of different strains, including the Peppin, Delaine, and the Booroola.
The Merino is an excellent forager and very adaptable. It is bred predominantly for its wool, and its carcass size is generally smaller than that of sheep bred for meat. South African Meat Merino (SAMM), American Rambouillet and German Merinofleischschaf have been bred to balance wool production and carcass quality.
Merino wool is finely crimped and soft. Staples are commonly 65–100 mm (2.6–3.9 in) long. A Saxon Merino produces 3–6 kg (6.6–13.2 lb) of greasy wool a year, while a good quality Peppin Merino ram produces up to 18 kg (40 lb). Merino wool is generally less than 24 micron (µm) in diameter. Basic Merino types include: strong (broad) wool 23–24.5 µm, medium wool is 19.6–22.9 µm, fine 18.6–19.5 µm, superfine 15–18.5 µm and ultra fine 11.5–15 µm. Ultra fine wool is suitable for blending with other fibers such as silk and cashmere. New Zealand produces lightweight knits made from Merino wool and possum fur.
Merino need to be shorn at least once a year because their wool does not stop growing. If the coat is allowed to grow, it can cause heat stress, mobility issues, and blindness.