Merinos as cultural heritage

First published by the Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders (AASMB) in their journal Top Sire in 2001.

It looked so familiar at first. Ewes grazing contentedly on the early spring grass, snowy lambs cavorting beneath the sheltering trees … but even to me, a bush-born and bred city-based writer who had forgotten most of what she had ever learned from her merino-breeding family in central NSW, those merino sheep looked ‘all wrong’! And those short evenly spaced evergreen trees, so neat and picture-book trim, were nothing at all like the straggly eucalypts back home.

In the next paddock huge black pigs were snuffling around the tree roots, but they looked more like wild boars than domesticated porkers; and up on the hill a mob of cream-coloured cattle was patiently waiting for their supplementary hay. They all had such lethally long, pointed horns, though, that no-one would let them into a sale-yard back home! What’s more, I couldn’t ask why they hadn’t been de-horned — because this was Estremadura, an autonomous region in southern Spain, and unfortunately I’m monolingual. And I wasn’t here to look at pigs or cattle, anyway. I was in Estremadura to look at sheep: and in particular, at Spanish merinos.

The property I was visiting was San Rafael, a 600 hectare latifundio owned by Alberto Oliart Saussol , President of the Associacion Naciojnal de Criadores de Ganado Merino, and his family near Merida, a regional city of 52 000 built on the site Emerita Augusta, the capital of the Ancient Roman province of Lusitania. The Oliart family merinos are amongst the best in the country, as the countless ribbons and trophies in the family’s stone hacienda attest. But Spain’s wool industry, the mainstay of its economy in medieval times, is no more. We ‘upstarts’ in Australia, the Americas and South Africa ‘stole’ it over a century ago, which means that, in their homeland, merino sheep are now bred primarily for meat and for the milk from which southern Spain’s famous merino cheese is manufactured. Which explains why San Rafael’s prize-winning ewes looked so unfamiliar to me.

The big black Iberian pigs were also prize-winners, if only because they produced superlative jamon, the traditional salt-cured Spanish ham that is cut into sliver-thin, almost translucent slices and eaten as tapas, or snacks, with thick slabs of crusty bread, merino cheese and olives. Several jamon haunches were buried between layers of sea salt in a large tub in San Rafael’s cellar, and last season’s already-cured legs were hanging, black hooves still attached as tradition demands, from the cellar’s ancient wooden rafters, along with rows of thick pork sausages.

The jamon of this part of Spain is especially flavoursome because the pigs graze on the acorns that drop from the many encina trees, the native acorn-producing holms oaks that still remain in the paddocks. These native woodland/grassland associations are called dehasas, and, unlike many native ecological communities in Australia, they have escaped land clearance because of their economic importance to local agricultural industries, especially to the production of traditional jamon.

I was shown around San Rafael by Florencio Barajas Vazquez, Secretario Ejecutivo of Spain’s Associacion Naciojnal de Criadores de Ganado Merino, the national merino stud breeders association. Florencio patiently explained to me, in his excellent Spanglish, that all the stock on this property – the merinos, the pigs, and the long-horned blanca cererena cattle – were ‘indigenous’ to this region, as was the farm’s sheepdog, a proud Mastine bred to protect ewes and lambs from wolves and other predators.

While we were chatting in the ram shed with some of the neighbouring farmers I naively suggested that merinos might have been introduced to the Iberian Peninsula by Berber pastoralists sometime after the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa in 711. The passionate response my innocent remark provoked made it clear that I had made an unforgivable faux pas! Florencio attempted to translate the young farmers’ comments for me, but much of what they were trying to tell me was clearly untranslatable! To these farmers, merino sheep and their country’s other ‘rustic species’ – Iberian pigs, cattle, mastine dogs and Andalucian horses – were the outcome of hundreds, if not thousands of years of careful selective breeding and good husbandry of native species by native Spaniards, and as such, were as much part of Spain’s cultural heritage as were the creative achievements of Cervantes and Goya, and the feet-stamping flamenco music that represents the fusion of so many cultural influences in this part of the world. These Spanish farmers therefore saw themselves the custodians of a living cultural heritage and insisted that the government had an obligation to insulate regional Spain from the excesses of globalisation for cultural reasons, as much as for economic reasons. Similar arguments can be heard throughout regional Europe, and they have been heeded by all European governments, as Australian farmers know only too well.

The young farmers gathered in the ram shed at San Rafael took their rural heritage very seriously. One of them, who was introduced to me only as Fernando, still practiced transhumancia, the annual migration of sheep from the plains of Estremadura to the Sierras, for example. Each year he walks his merinos to the uplands along the ancient stock routes, in much the same way as his forebears must have done in Medieval times when the once-great wool-producers guild, El Honorado Consejo de la Mesta de Los Pastores de Castilla (The Honored Council of the Shepherds’ Conclave of Castile), also known simply as the Mesta, was so powerful. Fernando is not alone in honoring the traditions of his pastoral heritage and seeking to preserve them. In October each year a mob of sheep is driven through the centre of Madrid as part of an ongoing public campaign to retain the traditional stock routes for their cultural and environmental values.

As readers of Top Sire will have realized by now, I’m not a merino breeder. I am, however, very interested in the history of Australia’s wool industry, and in its social and environmental impacts, and am exploring some of these in my next novel which is set in both Estremadura and in Victoria’s sheep-producing Western District. My interest is driven, in part, by my desire to understand my own pastoral heritage, and the social and environmental impacts my rural forebears have had on this continent since they settled the inland of New South Wales. But I guess it’s the future of rural Australia I’m most interested in: how rural communities can adapt to the very different circumstances they now find themselves in. And I suspect there is a non-fiction book to be written about that sometime too!

From the author: I would like to thank Carol-Ann Malouf, Public Relations Officer for the The Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders Limited; Alberto Oliart Saussol and Florencio Barajas Vazquez, of the Associacion Nacional de Criadores de Ganado Merino; the Australian Studies Centre, Departament de Filologia Anglesa i Alemanya, 1st Universitat de Barcelona, Spain; the School of Social Science and Planning, RMIT University; and the Literature Fund of the Australia Council for supporting my field research in Spain.

Several chapters of a work-in-progress, tentatively called Merino, which draws on this field work were published in Eucalypt No. 2, the journal of the Australian Studies Centre in Barcelona, in 2002. Please note, however, that the characters in these chapters bear no relationship to any of the people I met in Estramadura or elsewhere in Spain. They are entirely fictional and it is presumptuous to assume otherwise.

© This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.

Article first published in Top Sire, 2001, and posted on-line on 19 June 2005. Last revised 15 July 2005, and again on 21 January 2008. Re-posted on this new site on 24 January 2011. Permalink


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