Why so many sheep in Britain??
Britain has a long history of wool production. By the time the Romans invaded (55 BC) there was a wool “industry” and the Romans encouraged this, finding it of very high quality. By the 8th century Britain was exporting woolen fabrics to the Continent and after the Norman Conquest in 1066 this was expanded. By the 12th century wool was Britain’s biggest commercial asset and large towns in the South and East (closest to the Continent) were centers of the wool trade. British wool was second to none and other European countries produced only lower quality stuff. The biggest export was for raw wool, but over the centuries manufacturing of woolen fabrics became grew in importance – especially in regions with large pastures, soft water for washing and dyeing the wool (hard water is not good!) and water power for driving the “fulling” or felting machinery. In East Anglia there were no hills for water power, so they used the long, fine wool from their local sheep (Lincolns) to develop a cloth with didn’t require fulling – called “worsted” cloth after the town of Worstead. The resulting cloth was very high value, smooth and durable, and took more effort to produce than the woolen fulled cloth. Today, handspinners know that “worsted” and “woolen” describe two different wool preparation systems, which give different results.
In the 14th and 15th centuries England became one of the major centers for cloth manufacturing and export in Europe, and other regions of Britain started getting in on the action. The main competition were the Spanish, who had developed the fine-wool merino sheep and an attendant textile industry. After the Napoleonic wars of early 1800 totally destroyed the Spanish wool industry, the merino industry moved to Australia, where more breed improvements (for ever-finer wool) were done. (Australia is now one of the major centers of wool production on the planet, with about 80% of the fine wool "clip" coming from that continent.)
The industrial revolution from 1750-1850 was driven in no small part by the need for greater output for the wool cloth manufacturing industry. At this time, sheep husbandry and breeding became more standardized and systematic as well. The spinning wheel and weaving loom were mechanized by the mid-1700’s, which caused unrest amongst the master weavers (highly skilled workers whose training took years), leading to the Luddite riots in Britain. The weavers feared unemployment in a world without retraining programs or social safety nets. Mechanization, however, was inevitable, and was helped along by the coal found in Northern England and the invention of the steam engine. Eventually only those areas that accepted mechanization saw their industry survive. Some of those areas still produce woolen cloth today...think Harris Tweed!
Through the decades, sheep breeds have been "adjusted" in order to maximize the efficiency of the machinery that processes their wool, and hence, the marketability of the sheep. Corriedale sheep, for instance, were bred in the mid 1800’s for the sweater market, and their wool is “designed” for the requirements of the knitting machines available at the time. Today, softness and fineness is of paramount importance to the wool industry, and merino sheep are top-of-the-heap, with Italian mills taking most of the wool clip and turning it in to high-end fabrics. Smaller mills can fill niches in the craft wool market, and can set up to process other grades of wool. But they don't have the distribution networks of the large mills so their products are harder to find.
Sheep are clearly an integral part of Britain’s history and landscape. However, the constant presence of these animals over the centuries has contributed to extensive deforestation, and continues to exact an environmental toll as hoof damage and grazing encourages erosion. Trees and shrubs cannot re-grow on constantly sheep-grazed land. Scotland and Wales look the way they do in large part because of centuries of sheep farming – although historical changes in local climate, active tree-chopping for fuel and boat-building, and “managing estates for deer and grouse hunting” has also played a role. Today, British farmers are subsidized to keep their herds on the hills, even if these sheep have little economic value. The cultural significance of the animals (combined with the fact that nobody can remember the forests) makes it hard to change the farming practices. There is even a concept called "conservation grazing", which uses sheep to maintain open pastures and the ecosystems they support (so that the brush and woodland are kept at bay). On a recent trip to Scotland, I was surprised to discover that reforestation projects there are controversial in a way they would never be here on the west coast of Canada. Maybe it's my own Canadian bias speaking here, but I admit to being astounded that one does not let "nature take its course" and encourage the forest to rebound....and then maybe reintroduce some wolves...bears...OK, perhaps I'm a bit off the deep end here...
On the other hand, I do love the sheep!