I knew that would get your attention. Now I’m going to blab a bit. :)
When I planned this trip to Australia, I kind of had this vision that Australia was land o’ sheep, and that there would be ranches everywhere and sheep around every corner. I guess that’s true for some parts of the country, but not of Robinvale, which is my base of operations since I have a free place to stay and half-paid-for groceries. Dan had assured me that he passed by several farms on his way to the Grampians, and saw a few signs for organic Merinos with phone numbers. But when we retraced his steps, we only saw one flock of sheep and one sign which had mostly to do with selling stud Merino semen. Not exactly the part of the sheep that I’m interested in. :) I had a lovely offer from ixchelbunny on Ravelry to come see her angora rabbit farm near Melbourne, but I unfortunately was only in the city for a few days and without a non-public mode of transportation. I was sorry to miss out on the chance to cuddle fluffy bunnies! So when I got back to Robinvale, I googled galore to see if there was anything at all within a single day’s driving distance. And I found Burrabliss!
Burrabliss Farm is in Lake Boga, near Swan Hill. At an hour and 45 minutes away, it’s practically right next door to Robinvale. :) I emailed with Tricia Pollard, she and her husband Bruce who own the sheep farm and a B&B, and set up a visit. I met them at the B&B, which is on the shore of Lake Boga. She has a garden full of beautiful and fragrant roses:
Alright, enough about roses, more about wool. :) They specialize in raising Saxon Merino sheep to produce ultra-fine fleeces – we’re talking below 15 microns, which is incredible for wool. Most merino falls in the 20-22 micron range, super-fine merino usually meaning 18-19 microns. So I was blown away when she said she had an 11.4 micron fleece! That one’s behind glass, so all I could do was drool, but I did get to feel a 12ish micron fleece. As you might expect, it’s heaven. Absolute heaven. Super-tight springy crimp and oh-so-soft. This is the type of fleece that spinners dream about, usually with a glazed look in their eyes.
So how do they do it? They raise their sheep according to the Sharlea method, which is a trademarked name for a specific process used to house, feed, and yes, clothe sheep so that they produce ultra-fine and very clean wool. The first ingredient is protecting the fleece from the weather. So all the sheep are housed in a large raised shed.
The inside is penned, and there are probably about 12 sheep per pen. Even though the shed houses 500 sheep, they’re not packed in tightly or confined in any way. There’s plenty of space in each pen for the sheep to move around freely.
The second ingredient is keeping the fleece clean. Each sheep is coated, of course, and the coats are changed every 3-4 months as needed.
This little guy was pretty cute:
And they are all guys, by the way, all wethers. I asked why no females, and it’s basically because a female sheep with that good of a fleece is better used as a breeder. And with any fiber animal, the fleece quality isn’t as good when a female is pregnant, because all the animal’s energy goes to the developing baby. Burrabliss doesn’t actually breed any of their own sheep, mostly because it would be yet another endeavor that takes up more space and time. As someone with a one-person business, I can understand that decision!
The floor is slatted, so that their dung falls through the slats onto the ground several feet below (you can see the piles under the shed in the first picture above). The feed is distributed along walkways outside of the pens, and each sheep has a spot to stick his head through the pen and eat. So the pens also stay free of hay.
Ingredient number 3 is a specially controlled diet. They buy feed in bulk for the entire year, changing to a new year’s supply just after shearing to maintain consistency. The feed is tested for protein, and supplemented with oats and vitamins. Each sheep is also weighed about 4 times per year, so they can judge the health of the animal and fleece growth.
Overall, these are some of the best-cared-for sheep I’ve seen. Some people may be upset that they’re “stuck in pens,” but you can’t argue that they get far more individual care and attention to health than 99% of free-range sheep. Tricia said that penned Saxon Merinos have a lifespan of about 8-9 years, vs. pastured sheep that have a life expectancy of 6-7 years. And frankly, the sheep didn’t really seem to care that they were inside. They have enough space to move around, they get high-quality feed, and they even have the radio to listen to. But maybe they need cable TV….
I did leave with some fleece. Not 11 microns unfortunately, I had to stick to fleeces in the “lower-priced” 13-15 micron range. In case you’re wondering, an 11.7 micron fleece goes for roughly $250 USD per pound. The fleeces tend to be between 1 and 2 lbs – the sheep are pretty small and the fleece is well-skirted. Burrabliss sells most of its fleece in bales at auction, but they have probably about 10 individual fleeces left, ranging from about 13 to 14.5 microns, and depending on weight & fiber, they’re approx. $75 to $150 AUD each (right now the exchange rate is about 1 USD = 1.1 AUD). And I know some of you have drum carders….a pound of fleece wouldn’t be that hard to process yourself…(enable, enable!) If you’re interested, contact Tricia for a list. She’s shipped to the US several times and will try to ship to just about anywhere.
updated links 07/10/2014
And some comments – I know this is bound to be a controversial subject. I stand by my assessment that they were the best cared for sheep I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a metric fuckton of sheep. Just to be perfectly clear – these sheep are not kept in the dark. There is natural light coming in the windows, which are oriented in a typical passive solar design, which allows indirect sunlight in so the barn stays cool. No, it’s not super bright, THAT’S THE POINT. They aren’t kept hungry, though they are fed a special diet to maintain wool quality. Pretty much any wool breeder, alpaca, sheep, you name it, controls their animal’s feed. It’s well known for alpacas that too much protein will cause their fiber to be coarse, I’m not sure if it’s the same or opposite with sheep. Anyway, you can totally debate pens or free range, but you can’t debate the quality of their care or living conditions. This is not veal, people.