Merino sheep are a type of sheep bred primarily for wool. There are several different strands of merino sheep, each with slightly different characteristics. Varieties of the breed are raised all over the world, with significant populations in Australia, New Zealand, and Spain. Merino sheep were originally bred in Spain; in fact, it was illegal to export them until the 18th century.
Like many breeds, merino sheep are usually good foragers. Rams do not often strike, particularly if they are of the Australian poll variety. Merinos also have a very long productive life, sometimes living for up to 12 years. These qualities, among others, make merinos pleasant and profitable to raise on small farms where sufficient attention can be paid to the sheep.
Merino ewes give birth once a year, typically to one or two lambs. When sheep had to be bred using natural methods, it was difficult to consolidate the very best of the merino breed in one location. Sheep were spread out over a variety of continents, meaning that the best rams could not always be mated to the best ewes. With artificial insemination and better quality identification methods, the merino breed continues to improve rapidly.
Most varieties are smooth, or nearly so, but some have heavy and obvious wrinkles in their skin. Due to selective breeding, the majority of merino sheep are white or off-white in color, although colored lambs are still occasionally born. Some farmers specifically aim to raise colored merinos so that naturally colored textiles may be produced. A black sheep in particular is now prized for its unique wool.
The wool of most merino sheep is often considered exceptionally fine, as it is strong, soft, and has unique characteristics among fibers. Typically, merino wool is crimped and has a diameter of less than 24 microns. Merino sheep can produce fibers as fine as 10 microns, although this is usually not on the entire fleece. Fine merino fibers are also sometimes blended with other fibers such as alpaca or cashmere during production for luxurious yarns.
Merino wool is popular in many clothing items, particularly those that are intended for outdoor athletic activities. The wool wicks away moisture, stays warm when wet, and has anti-bacterial properties. Merino socks are particularly popular, because these qualities are highly valuable in footwear. Other items, particularly those that are worn against the skin, also make use of these attributes. Items made of merino generally perform better than less expensive synthetic counterparts, and are thus often considered the best available on the market.