We often see references to the “thread” of history, as one event follows another and patterns begin to emerge. One example of such a phenomenon is the not so humble sheep.For millennia the sheep has been clothing mankind. It has also provided a major item of trade between widely spaced out communities so far as its wool is concerned. (Its flesh has been an item of exchange only since the invention of canning and refrigeration).
It was always an attractive item of livestock in communities where the soil was poor, as in semi-desert or on mountain slopes. Many communities developed a high level of skill in the spinning and weaving of wool. This led to an expansion of trade with other areas, enabling all sorts of commodities to be imported in exchange – as in the case of England in and after mediaeval times.
A major commodity in the Middle East/Fertile Crescent thousands of years ago, wool was a major factor in the technology advances of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th. century. By the 19th. century the expansion of the world’s population created an insatiable demand for wool, a situation largely remedied by the development of newly-acquired land in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere for sheep-farming. Ensuing imports of raw wool brought large profits to the textile-manufacturing industry particularly of the North of England.
There are however two sides to every story. In Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia” written in the early 1500’s, we have an interesting passage, which reads roughly as follows:- “your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame – – – be become so great devourers and so wild , that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves.They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields ,houses, and cities.” Flight of fancy? No – the words cover hard economic facts.
The high price obtainable for woollen goods encouraged 16th. century landlords to evict their tenant farmers engaged in “”mixed farming” and turn the land over to sheep which required the minimum of human care and produced the greatest profit. It is this which More was indirectly pointing out. (With Henry VIII around you had to be very indirect).
This is not the only example in history in which the destructive powers of the humble sheep are evident. I can’t vouch for the most ancient cultures like Egypt and Mesopotamia, but certainly in the Roman Empire the picture is repeated. The city of Rome itself was being flooded with evicted tenant farmers, forced off their farms as landlords took over areas of land for less labour intensive sheep-farming. Here the sheep were not the only culprits – grapes and olives also lent themselves to mass-production, with minimum human input.
Yet another example is Scotland in the 19th. century, when the notorious Highland Clearances took place. Again it was the economy and profit of sheep-farming which drove the process. Ireland notably was similarly affected , particularly in the years after the Famine in the 1840’s, when wholesale evictions took place.
In Australia and New Zealand it could be argued that similar events took place. Not so much the eviction of existing farmers, but notably in the case of New Zealand, the clearing of native forest and replacing it with grassland, which was progressively devoured by sheep, and left in a condition where it is subject to erosion and of greatly diminished utility.
In some cases in history the “roundabouts and the swings” situation emerges. The 19th. century was the century of emigration to new lands in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, but there is no disguising the terrible hardships incurred. In Rome a chronic unemployment problem ensued. No amount of free bread and free entertainment could conceal the hardship, producing inevitable political instability. In more modern times the rise of Socialism was a consequence of this kind of economic situation Does all wealth and profit come at a price? I don’t think we can blame sheep for the massive increase in today’s cities, yet the underlying cause is a drift from rural areas into urban sites. Like Rome, we still seem to be far from a solution.