WOOL FROM DOWN-UNDER. A resilient economy springs from the backs of sheep

By , The Christian Science Monitor staff

``Tell ya what, `Ginger Rogers': You throw the boomerang -- and if ya catch it, I'll give you the whole kit 'n' caboodle,'' quips Bernard Morrison, owner-manager of Tralee sheep station. ``Bernard,'' as most everyone calls him, is a quaint character who is all at once rancher, entrepreneur, smooth-tongued showman, and knowledgeable tourist guide. Travelers from around the globe visit his family's holdings here in the suburbs of Australia's capital. They come throughout the year to view shearing and wool grading and the working of sheep dogs.

Clad in his brown plaids -- with lapels full of medals and ``stuff'' -- Bernard is teasing an auburn-tressed California visitor who bears but a faint resemblance to veteran Hollywood movie star Ginger Rogers. But when he works his dogs and shows his sheep, Tralee station's head man is all business.

Bernard doesn't miss a beat -- or an opportunity for a commercial. He lists his seven wonders of wool: ``Wool insulates against cold and heat; it wears long without losing its shape; it tailors beautifully and drapes perfectly; it absorbs moisture and keeps you dry; it's flame-resistant; it resists wrinkling; and it holds its color and dyes well.''

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Wool-producing sheep are the mainstay of the agricultural economy here in Australia. The same is true of neighboring New Zealand. Sheep, an estimated 65 million of them, seem to dot almost every inch of countryside of the smaller two-island nation. Wool and lamb products bring $1.2 billion into the New Zealand economy each year. Economic estimates and early sales promise 1985 will be a boom year there.

A similar optimistic forecast has been made for the sheep industry here in Australia. This nation's Financial Review showed strong market conditions for the first quarter of this year -- with wool sales surpassing $1.5 billion by mid-March.

Both nations are selling their wool to new markets in the Orient, embarking on aggressive advertising campaigns to ``lift wool's image,'' and luring overseas visitors to their ranches and markets to buy wool products, ranging from coats and suits to rugs, blankets, and fleece-lined shoes.

Meanwhile, with Bernard and his counterparts at other sheep stations around the country as hawkers, the main show in these land-rich agricultural nations are the sheep themselves and the highly disciplined dogs, which often do the job of six or more station workers or of herdsmen on horseback.

New Zealand's ``Agridome'' in Rotorua showcases 19 different breeds of choice wool-producers. Even their names are majestic: Perendale, Merino, Corriedale, Dorset Horn, Coopworth, Drysdale, Suffolk, Ryeland, Cheviot, Soutdown, Rumney Marsh, and Hampshire.

Shearing is done on New Zealand's North Island from October through December; on the South Island from January through March. It takes 12 months to grow a full new fleece. In Australia, shearing is usually done year-round.

The process of removing wool from sheep is considered an art. It is done either manually or mechanically. An average shearer can trim 140 to 150 sheep a day. Jack Howe, an Australian shearing champion of the 1890s, was said to have shorn 320 Merinos with blades in seven hours and 40 minutes at Alice Downs station.

It was near Queenstown, on New Zealand's South Island, on a lazy Sunday that a caravan of Americans, heading for the Mt. Cook recreation area, were stalled on the road by a sea of white -- more than 1,000 sheep. What the ranchers call a ``strong-eyed'' dog -- a cross between a border collie and a Labrador -- was in charge. Responding to the ``whistle'' commands of a far-off herdsman, this gentle but self-assured canine patiently corralled this flock -- nudging, occasionally barking, even jumping on the back of a recalcitrant.

These smooth-haired dogs are especially bred for the hot and dry climate down-under. It takes about a year to train them.

Good sheep dogs are both prized and pampered by their owners. In some cases, so are prime sheep. Some Australian ranchers, for instance, now reportedly give special care to their rare Sharlea flocks -- keeping them indoors instead of on the range, feeding them enriched mix, and covering them with cloth to protect their fleeces from dirt.

The fleece of a Sharlea brings about $56 -- in contrast with the average of $14 to $17 for the wool from one sheep of another breed. Among Australia's 139 million sheep, there are only about 15,000 Sharlea.

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