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Mouflon are the wild ancestors of sheep, and they still survive because they are faster than Olympic athletes on steroids. They excel at racing across steep, rocky landscapes. They also have large curled horns, capable of rattling the brains of their bloodthirsty foes. Long ago, folks sometimes discovered mouflon youngsters, brought them back to camp, and raised them. Unlike rowdy aurochs, the young lambs were less challenging to raise in captivity.
Paul Shepard noted that wild animals have a stable genome. Thus, the genes of today’s mouflon are likely much the same as their ancestors 800+ thousand years ago. But during the process of domestication, breeders deliberately selected for characteristics more beneficial for milk production, wool quality, and ease of control. Bye-bye stable genes.
After dogs, sheep were among the first critters to be domesticated, maybe 11,000 years ago. During this tragic demotion, their brains eventually became 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors. They lost a lot of their survival skills. I’ve seen several reports of wolves killing dozens of sheep, and only eating one or two. When wolves ran into large prey that acted so abnormally helpless, it was surreal and mystifying. The sacred kill is usually a more dignified ceremony.
In the old days, sheep shed their winter wool when springtime brought warmer temperatures. Over the centuries, clever humans have “improved” the sheep they own and exploit. Because of selective breeding, modern sheep are more likely to retain their wool, rather than scatter it all over the countryside. This makes it easier for herders to collect as much of their precious wool as possible.
In Australia, folks discovered one domesticated sheep who had managed to escape six years earlier, and enjoy a life of freedom. Unfortunately, the miserable critter had never been sheared, and was carrying around 93 pounds (42 kg) of filthy wool. This beat the previous record of another sheep found in New Zealand that carried so much wool it could barely walk. It was blind, crippled, and near death. Unshorn sheep are vulnerable to dying from heat stroke in warm weather.
Domesticated sheep are also vulnerable to pests like scab mites, that thrive in herds of confined prisoners. The mites multiply and cause skin lesions, which lead to wool loss and open bleeding wounds. Complications include hypothermia, infections, and death. Mites are spread via the herder’s clothing, sheering tools, fence posts, and bits of wool hanging from bushes.
Mouflon manage their own lives, and fully take care of themselves. Enslaved sheep require a lot of human assistance. Shepherds are needed to protect them from bloodthirsty predators — noxious pests that must be aggressively exterminated whenever possible. Smart shepherds are careful to avoid overgrazing. Sometimes sheep also need to be provided with hay, water, salt, and shelter.
Kassia St Clair noted that some types of sheep were selectively bred to produce white wool, which is easier to dye. This would be a vulnerability for wild ones, because it would make them far more visible to predators. I learned about St Clair’s book when I read Claire Eamer’s fascinating essay, No Wool, No Vikings.
For the first 250,000 years, our ancestors ran around naked in the tropics. With the colonization of snow country, folks were confronted with the new possibility of freezing to death. In the early days, it was fashionable to wear clothing made of animal skins and pelts, ideally cut and sewn into stylish tailor made active wear. This clothing kept folks fairly warm, until it got wet. Much later, innovation provided colonists with wool clothing, which stayed fairly warm even when wet. The adaptation of clothing was another radical transition in the human saga. It opened up vast regions of uninhabited land for exploration and colonization.
St Clair wrote that Vikings used wool to make their clothing, mittens, blankets, and sails. A blanket required the wool of 17 sheep. It took two highly skilled women more than a year to make a typical square sail. To outfit an average Viking cargo ship and crew, making the clothing, bedding, and sails would require 440 pounds (200 kg) of wool, and ten person years of labor for producing, shearing, carding, spinning, weaving, and finishing the products. Some believe that, in the old days, folks in snow country might have spent more hours making cloth than acquiring food.
Viking long ships were yet another radical transition. Sailing boats were not a new idea. Folks used them in other regions, like the Mediterranean. Coastal regions of Scandinavia were not home to many sheltered, deep water harbors, so Viking ships were built with a shallow draft, so they could be landed on beaches. This made them great for surprise attacks and fast getaways. The use of sail power was enabled by keels that could be lowered in deep water, and raised when beaching.
These new boats allowed Vikings to raid communities that had formerly been safe and secure for centuries. In A.D. 98, Tacitus wrote about the Suiones, who lived along the Swedish coastline. For them, the sea provided an invincible defensive barrier. It was impossible for enemies to attack them by water. But the new boats set the stage for the Viking era — several centuries of raiding, pillaging, bloodshed, and colonizing that rocked northern Europe.
Remarkably, the design of longboats also made them capable of travelling on the open ocean. Rugged woolen sails allowed them to cross the Atlantic and build an outpost at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. In those days, most of humankind spent their entire lives fairly close to their place of birth. Imagine gaining the ability to sail to unknown lands more than a thousand miles away. This was a mind-blowing possibility. It rubbished the traditional perception of space and limits.
Long distance sea travel flung open a ghastly Pandora’s Box. Sailing ships enabled aggressive conquerors to colonize vast regions around the world. Environmental history is loaded with horror stories of pathogens delivered by long distance sea travel — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, and countless others. Millions of unlucky indigenous people have been conquered, enslaved, and/or killed by alien invaders from distant lands.
Anyway, wool was big juju. Prior to the nineteenth century, clothing was the product of extremely labor-intensive processes. For hardworking common folks, clothing was precious, carefully mended and patched, and passed on to the next generation. When someone died in a hospital, the clothing of the deceased had to be removed and given to the lawful inheritors. Many folks owned little more than what they were wearing. Like moon explorers, wool space suits enabled tropical primates to survive in frigid life-threatening environments.
St Clair also discussed English wool. The Normans were Vikings who colonized the north coast of France and smelled like sheep. In 1066, they conquered England. By the thirteenth century, England had become famous for its high quality wool. Regions that produced the softest, richest wool could sell it for very high prices. Most of the cloth makers that bought the wool were not English, many were Flemish or Florentine. Ships that carried the wool to buyers were prime targets for pirates, eager to snatch the precious white gold, and get rich quick.
On the manors of wealthy aristocrats, the peasant tenants were given rights to use specific strips of cropland. Assignments would change from year to year, because some cropland was regularly allowed to lie fallow and recharge. Beside cropland, there were also common pastures, and common forests, which the whole community could use. Tenants raised livestock, hunted, foraged, grew vegetables, and cut firewood and timber. The survival of the peasant community was dependent on always having access to the commons. Even with access, the lives of most were brutally harsh and marginal, compared to modern couch potatoes.
By 1297, half of the total English economy was generated by the wool industry. Before long, ambitious aristocrats realized that they could make far more money from raising sheep than by collecting rents from their dirt-poor tenant farmers. This deep hunger for wealth slowly led to a process known as the enclosure movement. Fences and hedgerows were created to prohibit tenants from entering the commons. They were not amused, they were doomed.
Graham Harvey wrote that the enclosures began in England, during the fourteenth century. They gradually spread over the passage of several centuries, and then surged from 1750 to 1860. Simon Fairlie noted that between 1760 and 1870, about 7 million acres (2.8 million ha), about a sixth the area of England, was changed from common land to enclosed land.
One source estimated that, in Scotland alone, a half million peasants were driven off the land by the enclosures. No food, no home, no future. Across the U.K., the dispossessed were forced into filthy, disease ridden cities, where there were no social safety nets. Rioting became popular, as did infant mortality.
John Reader noted that the enclosure movement led to the breakdown of a long standing culture of land-based subsistence living for many. Tenant communities had benefitted from the mutual support of extended families. They were replaced by a small number of shepherds. With the tenants gone, there were fewer horses and oxen on the manor, so more grass was available for sheep. Tennant cottages and outbuildings were demolished. Several hundred villages disappeared, except for their churches. Aristocrats enjoyed getting higher income from their manors, and raising sheep was more dependable than agriculture. From year to year, grain harvests were quite vulnerable to the mood swings of weather and luck.
Harvey wrote that in the Black Death era (1340s), Britain was a backwater. Three centuries later, it was Europe’s most advanced country. Wool flooded the U.K. with cash, and for 200 years it was the world’s richest country. Millions of hungry dirty people in cities were willing to work insane hours, in miserable conditions, for peanuts. This nourished the emergence of a powerful industrial state. By 1832, the medieval peasant community had been completely destroyed. Like I said, wool was big juju. The gentle sheep had eaten many lives and villages.
My great-great-grandmother was Sarah Cleaton, who married Edward Rees in 1838. They were born and raised in the village of Cwmbelan, Wales, where a small stream passing through the village powered a waterwheel at the flannel factory. Sheep grazed on the surrounding hillsides (formerly lush forest). Cwmbelan was in the parish of Llangurig. In 1836, the 49,600 acre (20,000 ha) parish had 37,000 acres of commons. By 1875, “large quantities of the common land have been enclosed.”
Edward and Sarah had three sons before he died at 23 from “decline.” Sarah was a handloom weaver, as was her mother Mary, and her sister Catherine. So were her sister-in-laws, Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jane Rees. Handloom weaving was a skilled profession. It apparently provided something like a respectable middle class income for that era.
With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and its power mills, 500,000 weavers lost their source of income, according to Clive Ponting. Many were forced to move to filthy cities. By 1861, Sarah and her three sons had moved south to Merthyr Tydfil, home to an iron mining district, Dowlais. She was a barkeep at the Green Dragon pub, and her two older sons mined iron.
Merthyr Tydfil had four ironworks, and a slum known as Little Hell, where a super-poor population of “unhappy and lawless” folks were piled together in conditions of squalor that were at least as bad as Liverpool or Nottingham. The district had no toilets. Open sewers encouraged the spread of cholera and typhoid. Millions of friendly lice thrived on folks who rarely if ever bathed.
Unfortunately, for Sarah and sons, by 1861, the ironworks industry in Merthyr Tydfil got blindsided by new technology, the Bessemer process, and local prosperity was fading fast. In 1863 they moved to Pennsylvania.
In 1919, her son Richard E. Rees, celebrated his fiftieth anniversary in Columbus, Ohio. To commemorate the event, he sent a story to a Welsh newspaper. In it he wrote, “I have worked underground for 65 years; ten in the Old Country, two in Pennsylvania, and 53 in Ohio.” He was 75 years old, and lived another ten years.
Elinore Melville wrote about the introduction of sheep in Australia, where the firestick farming by Aborigines maintained expansive regions of grassland. Unfortunately, this excellent grassland was supporting the existence of useless vermin called kangaroos. Britain wasn’t interested in buying kangaroo meat, but they would pay good money for wool. So, colonists worked hard to exterminate as many kangaroos as possible, as they rapidly expanded the sheep ranching industry. By 1845 there were 9 million sheep, and in 1854 there were 12 million.
The British colonists came from a moist land that had reliable rainfall. Australia was different. When a herd had stripped the vegetation from an area, shepherds moved the herd to a greener pasture. The vegetation they devoured had been storing moisture, which slowed evaporation. The land dried out, and groundwater was not replenished. Drought followed drought. Overgrazing often rubbished grassland regions within 7 to 20 years.
Bill Gammage noted that the native kangaroo grass was excellent (“caviar for grazers”). It was a deep-rooted, drought tolerant perennial that held the soil in place, retained soil moisture, survived fire, and was highly nutritious. It remained green after four months without rain, a great asset for wildlife in drought times. The colonists’ sheep grazed it down to bare clay, killing the precious grass.
Colonists drained wetlands to expand pastures. Livestock proceeded to compact the soil, which dried out, and cracked. Springs, ponds, and creeks evaporated, eliminating the critters that lived in them. When rains returned, rapid runoff encouraged erosion, landslides, deep gullies, floods, silt chokes, and the spread of salts. An observer in 1853 commented on the growing soil destruction: “Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep (2 to 3 m), and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with a tussocky grass like a land marsh.”
Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, the Navajo moved from Alaska and western Canada down into the U.S. southwest, home of the Hopi, Zuñi, and Pueblo. In the early days, the Navajo lived as hunter-gatherers. In 1598 Spanish colonists arrived, bringing with them domesticated sheep, cattle, horses, and goats. The Navajo became sedentary, and learned sheep herding, weaving, and gardening. They planted fruit orchards. When forage was still adequate, livestock provided more reliable access to food, so famine times were reduced. This new mode of living led to population growth.
The Spanish did not allow the Navajo to own or ride horses, but eventually they acquired them. Horses made it much easier to hunt, and to raid neighbors. Stealing sheep was much easier than raising them. Raiding was about making unannounced visits to neighboring tribes and stealing sheep, horses, women, and children. Sometimes the defenders were killed and scalped. Naturally, other tribes responded by raiding the Navajo. Raiding was an extremely common practice among pastoral societies around the world.
Peter Iverson noted that by 1846, the Navajo had 500,000 sheep, 30,000 cattle, and 10,000 horses, mules, and asses. As white settlers moved in, they complained about the Indians. So, the government ordered the Navajo to relocate to a reservation, where they could become farmers and get rich quick. The Indians preferred to remain on their land, and continue living in their traditional manner. This was not the proper response.
So, the government sent Lieutenant Colonel Kit Carson to make the whites happy. In 1863 his troops brutally attacked the Navajos and destroyed homes, gardens, orchards, livestock, and people. The 8,000 surviving natives were forced to march 300 miles (480 km) to the luxurious Fort Summer facility. In 1868, they were allowed to return to a portion of their homeland. Each family was given two sheep, one male, one female.
The railroad arrived in 1881, and trading posts appeared along its route. This encouraged the Navajo to weave rugs and make jewelry to be used as trade goods. They raised large herds of Churro sheep, which produced long, smooth, and less greasy wool that was ideal for hand spinning.
By the time the Depression began in 1929, the Navajo population had swelled. Kendall Bailes wrote that by 1933, two million acres (809,000 ha) of Navajo land was severely overgrazed, some of it reduced to desert. There were huge erosion gullies, and large amounts of silt were moving into Lake Mead, the reservoir at Hoover Dam. Their herding practices, developed 200 years earlier, when grass was abundant, didn’t work as well in a dryer climate, when there was far less grass. Animals were starving. In the western states, the Dust Bowl had begun.
In 1935, the Bureau of Indian Affairs conducted a survey on grazing land. They found that the Navajo sheep flocks contained more than a million animals, and they were kept on land that could only support 560,000.
The government perceived this to be a very serious problem, for which the obvious solution was a sharp reduction in herd size. The Navajo, on the other hand, believed that this was the opposite of a problem, it was a sacred gift. Their livestock were tokens of wealth, status, and cultural identify. They loved their goats and sheep almost as much as their own children.
The white authorities moved in, without permission, and by the 1940’s, the herds were reduced by half. According to Iverson, at first the sheep were shipped urban centers to feed poor people. Eventually, the animals were just taken over the hill, shot, piled up, and left to rot. The government paid the Navajo for every animal eliminated, but the tribal economy was blindsided. Navajo resentment over this action remains fierce. The tribe now has a quota system for herd sizes in grazing ranges.