Honor the Fleece: Climate, Conflict, and Merino Sheep

Thursday Lecture Series

In her talk, Woods looked back to the turn of the nineteenth century, when a group of enthusiastic agricultural improvers introduced merino sheep, originally from Iberia to Great Britain, hoping to establish the foreign breed on domestic pastures and thereby free the nation from its reliance on foreign trading partners, especially Spain and the German principalities. This was a particularly pressing concern as France’s political, military, and economic might expanded in the 1790s and 1810s, generating conflict on the Iberian peninsula that disrupted the production of merino wool for export. Not all Britons agreed that acclimatizing the merino within the British Isles was in the best interest of Great Britain, though. A vociferous opposition to the merino enthusiasts argued that the British Isles were already stocked to capacity with a range of “native” breeds, themselves perfectly adapted to their local conditions. Introducing the merino threatened to disturb this fine balance, as well as to pollute the blood of British stock. The controversy surrounding this episode thus reveals the intimate connections between climate, type, and nation when it came to livestock in the early nineteenth century. It also reveals the limits of human power and agency over the animal kingdom and the natural world: the merino failed to thrive in the British Isles, quite literally degenerating due to the cold and damp conditions, so different from the dry climate of Spain. Only when merinos were imported to the Australian colonies in significant numbers in the 1830s and 1840s could they be said to have become truly “British.”