The Merino Sheep
by Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson
People have got the impression that the merino is a gentle, bleating
animal that gets its living without trouble to anybody, and comes up
every year to be shorn with a pleased smile upon its amiable face. It is
my purpose here to exhibit the merino sheep in its true light.
First let us give him his due. No one can accuse him of being a ferocious
animal. No one could ever say that a sheep attacked him without
provocation; although there is an old bush story of a man who was
discovered in the act of killing a neighbour's wether.
"Hello!" said the neighbour, "What's this? Killing my sheep! What have you
got to say for yourself?"
"Yes," said the man, with an air of virtuous indignation. "I am
killing your sheep. I'll kill any man's sheep that bites me!"
But as a rule the merino refrains from using his teeth on people. He goes
to work in another way.
The truth is that he is a dangerous monomaniac, and his one idea is to
ruin the man who owns him. With this object in view he will display a
talent for getting into trouble and a genius for dying that are almost
If a mob of sheep see a bush fire closing round them, do they run away out
of danger? Not at all, they rush round and round in a ring till the fire
burns them up. If they are in a river-bed, with a howling flood coming
down, they will stubbornly refuse to cross three inches of water to save
themselves. Dogs may bark and men may shriek, but the sheep won't move.
They will wait there till the flood comes and drowns them all, and then
their corpses go down the river on their backs with their feet in the
A mob will crawl along a road slowly enough to exasperate a snail, but let
a lamb get away in a bit of rough country, and a racehorse can't head
him back again. If sheep are put into a big paddock with water in three
corners of it, they will resolutely crowd into the fourth, and die of
When being counted out at a gate, if a scrap of bark be left on the ground
in the gateway, they will refuse to step over it until dogs and men have
sweated and toiled and sworn and "heeled 'em up", and "spoke to 'em",
and fairly jammed them at it. At last one will gather courage, rush at
the fancied obstacle, spring over it about six feet in the air, and dart
away. The next does exactly the same, but jumps a bit higher. Then comes
a rush of them following one another in wild bounds like antelopes,
until one overjumps himself and alights on his head. This frightens
those still in the yard, and they stop running out.
Then the dogging and shrieking and hustling and tearing have to be gone
through all over again. (This on a red-hot day, mind you, with clouds of
blinding dust about, the yolk of wool irritating your eyes, and,
perhaps, three or four thousand sheep to put through). The delay throws
out the man who is counting, and he forgets whether he left off at 45 or
95. The dogs, meanwhile, have taken the first chance to slip over the
fence and hide in the shade somewhere, and then there are loud
whistlings and oaths, and calls for Rover and Bluey. At last a
dirt-begrimed man jumps over the fence, unearths Bluey, and hauls him
back by the ear. Bluey sets to work barking and heeling-'em up again,
and pretends that he thoroughly enjoys it; but all the while he is
looking out for another chance to "clear". And
this time he won't be discovered in a hurry.
There is a well-authenticated story of a ship-load of sheep that was lost
because an old ram jumped overboard, and all the rest followed him. No
doubt they did, and were proud to do it. A sheep won't go through an
open gate on his own responsibility, but he would gladly and proudly
"follow the leader" through the red-hot portals of Hades: and it makes
no difference whether the lead goes voluntarily, or is hauled struggling
and kicking and fighting every inch of the way.
For pure, sodden stupidity there is no animal like the merino. A lamb will
follow a bullock-dray, drawn by sixteen bullocks and driven by a profane
person with a whip, under the impression that the aggregate monstrosity
is his mother. A ewe never knows her own lamb by sight, and apparently
has no sense of colour. She can recognise its voice half a mile off
among a thousand other voices apparently exactly similar; but when she
gets within five yards of it she starts to smell all the other lambs
within reach, including the black ones—though her own may be white.
The fiendish resemblance which one sheep bears to another is a great
advantage to them in their struggles with their owners. It makes it more
difficult to draft them out of a strange flock, and much harder to tell
when any are missing.
Concerning this resemblance between sheep, there is a story told of a fat
old Murrumbidgee squatter who gave a big price for a famous ram called
Sir Oliver. He took a friend out one day to inspect Sir Oliver, and
overhauled that animal with a most impressive air of sheep-wisdom.
"Look here," he said, "at the fineness of the wool. See the serrations in
each thread of it. See the density of it. Look at the way his legs and
belly are clothed—he's wool all over, that sheep. Grand animal, grand
Then they went and had a drink, and the old squatter said, "Now, I'll show
you the difference between a champion ram and a second-rater." So he
caught a ram and pointed out his defects. "See here—not half the
serrations that other sheep had. No density of fleece to speak of.
Bare-bellied as a pig, compared with Sir Oliver. Not that this isn't a
fair sheep, but he'd be dear at one-tenth Sir Oliver's price. By the
way, Johnson" (to his overseer), "what ram is this?"
"That, sir," replied the astounded functionary—"that is Sir Oliver,
There is another kind of sheep in Australia, as great a curse in his own
way as the merino—namely, the cross-bred, or half-merino-half-Leicester
animal. The cross-bred will get through, under, or over any fence you
like to put in front of him. He is never satisfied with his owner's run,
but always thinks other people's runs must be better, so he sets off to
explore. He will strike a course, say, south-east, and so long as the
fit takes him he will keep going south-east through all
obstacles—rivers, fences, growing crops, anything. The merino relies on
passive resistance for his success; the cross-bred carries the war into
the enemy's camp, and becomes a living curse to his owner day and night.
Once there was a man who was induced in a weak moment to buy twenty
cross-bred rams. From that hour the hand of Fate was upon him. They got
into all the paddocks they shouldn't have been in. They scattered
themselves over the run promiscuously. They visited the cultivation
paddock and the vegetable-garden at their own sweet will. And then they
took to roving. In a body they visited the neighbouring stations, and
played havoc with the sheep all over the district.
The wretched owner was constantly getting fiery letters from his
neighbours: "Your blanky rams are here. Come and take them away at
once," and he would have to go nine or ten miles to drive them home. Any
man who has tried to drive rams on a hot day knows what purgatory is. He
was threatened every week with actions for trespass.
He tried shutting them up in the sheep-yard. They got out and went back to
the garden. Then he gaoled them in the calf-pen. Out again and into a
growing crop. Then he set a boy to watch them; but the boy went to
sleep, and they were four miles away across country before he got on to
At length, when they happened accidentally to be at home on their owner's
run, there came a big flood. His sheep, mostly merinos, had plenty of
time to get on to high ground and save their lives; but, of course, they
didn't, and were almost all drowned. The owner sat on a rise above the
waste of waters and watched the dead animals go by. He was a ruined man.
But he said, "Thank God, those cross-bred rams are drowned, anyhow."
Just as he spoke there was a splashing in the water, and the twenty rams
solemnly swam ashore and ranged themselves in front of him. They were
the only survivors of his twenty thousand sheep. He broke down, and was
taken to an asylum for insane paupers. The cross-breds had fulfilled
The cross-bred drives his owner out of his mind, but the merino ruins his
man with greater celerity. Nothing on earth will kill cross-breds;
nothing will keep merinos alive. If they are put on dry salt-bush
country they die of drought. If they are put on damp, well-watered
country they die of worms, fluke, and foot-rot. They die in the wet
seasons and they die in the dry ones.
The hard, resentful look on the faces of all bushmen comes from a long
course of dealing with merino sheep. The merino dominates the bush, and
gives to Australian literature its melancholy tinge, its despairing
pathos. The poems about dying boundary-riders, and lonely graves under
mournful she-oaks, are the direct outcome of the poet's too close
association with that soul-destroying animal. A man who could write
anything cheerful after a day in the drafting-yards would be a freak of