The small text: In 1811, Consul Jarvis brought from Spain to Weathersfield Bow the prized Merino sheep whose longer fiber revolutionized the woolen industry and stimulated sheep raising throughout the East. In the 1830s, Merinos were the state’s principle livestock.
I recently drove past this historical marker. I paused there, both to take this picture and to think for a moment about the heritage of Merinos in Vermont. My sheep are derived from Merinos, so I feel a connection to the breed and its fate.
The marker mentions the rise of Merino sheep in the early 1800s. What it doesn’t mention is how the opening of the great plains, changes to tariff laws and Vermont’s damp climate transformed the 1830s Merino boom into the 1840s Merino bust. Prize rams sold for thousands of dollars in the 1830s, but by the late 1840s whole flocks were slaughtered and left to rot as wool prices crashed and oversupply left even the meat worthless. Even the strain of Merino that William Jarvis brought over, the wrinkly-skinned Vermont Merino, is now considered to be extinct.
I take this history as a caution on several counts. First, livestock breeds sometimes follow boom and bust trajectories that make fortunes for a small number of initial investors and can ruin subsequent investors. Alpaca raisers are just now beginning to recover from a market that saw highs of tens of thousands of dollars for “breeding quality” animals – a value far higher than that of the fiber and average offspring it might produce. Any species or breed that is “new” often goes through a period where breeding stock is in demand and prices are high. Prices fall later as the animal becomes more widespread. I was conscious of fads in breeds and breeding as I selected my initial stock. Though they are not as glamorous as registered, purebred and rare animals, my mixed-breed sheep should be exempt from the speculation pitfall.
The second count of caution is the fragility of pure stock bred to the extremes that many Merinos are. When wool fineness is the only breeding objective, traits like health and profligacy are diminished. Unlike most improved sheep breeds, Merino sheep can be delicate, slow to mature and often produce only single lambs. Combine a tendency towards genetic weakness with overvaluation, and the result can be fragile, unproductive stock purchased at a high price! Although I sacrifice wool fineness relative to true Merinos, crossbreeding my sheep ensures a broad genetic base for health and productivity. My sheep all twinned last year and I am hoping for the same this year.
The third count of caution involves the viability of sheep in Vermont. Once Merinos and their kin moved out to the plains in the 1840s, they stayed there. Most of the “major” sheep operations in the US are in the Western range states. Flocks of thousands of Rambouillets (French Merinos) produce fine wool on state and federal scrubland for a fraction of the cost of raising sheep in New England. It is imperative that New England sheep raisers find creative and original ways to be economically viable. I know I spend a lot of time thinking of how to make my sheep a real agricultural venture instead of a hobby. I am banking on my personal touches and devotion to quality.
Back on the farm, my sheep are gearing up for breeding season. At this time last year, most of my sheep were a month or two pregnant! This year, I’ll be lambing in April and May. The boys have been fairly low-key about waiting for love, but the girls have done some lovelorn baa-ing. Back on the note of economic viability, I’ve recently offered my first lambskin for sale on Etsy – Check it out: