Apart from pioneering a groundbreaking Merino breed, renowned sheep farmer and writer Charles Massy has spent decades trying to reform the Australian wool industry.

Story By Emma Mulholland

When Charles Massy opens the floor to questions at the launch of his controversial new book, Breaking the Sheep’s Back, someone from the crowd pipes up and asks: “Have you ever considered wearing a bulletproof jacket?” In typical Charles Massy fashion, the author quips, “I do. It’s already got a few holes in it”. There’s no disputing the fact that Charles’s Merino breeding methods, not to mention his vocal opposition to statutory intervention, have made him something of a black sheep among the famously conservative wool establishment, but it’s not a reputation he relishes. “I hate it,” he admits. “I’m not naturally combative, but having worked with the world’s leading manufacturers, I can see what our industry can do.” A quiet, thoughtful bloke, it’s not easy to imagine Charles shaking hands with some of the world’s most recognisable fashion designers. Nor are his thick, muscular hands – a product of the 35 years he’s spent growing wool in the rolling hills and extreme climes of New South Wales’ Monaro Plains – the sort you’d expect to spot rifling through archives and secret government documents. Or signing books, for that matter. But then Charles, or Charlie as he prefers it, is not your average cockie. 

In 1976, while in his final year of a zoology degree, Charlie took over his father’s 1820-hectare property “Severn Park” and used his training in molecular genetics and biology to create what became a renowned Merino stud. His quest for better wool led him to the research laboratory of Dr Jim Watts, a young CSIRO scientist who was working on a breed of Merino that would not only grow quality wool with increased fleece weight, but was easy to shear and could withstand harsh climates. Within five years, Jim’s Soft Rolling Skin Merinos (SRS) would no longer need mulesing and Charlie, who was the first to work with the breed, was getting a fertility rate about 1.6 times that of other Merinos. SRS now make up about eight percent of the Australian market, but in 1986 they were about as popular as flystrike.

This story excerpt is from Issue #79

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011