Sunday, 6 December 2009

The March of the Sheep

When people think of the Scottish countryside, they usually think of sheep; masses of them crawling like tufts of cotton wool over grassy meadows or wandering the heather covered slopes.Where you don't see sheep, you'll find black cows, the Aberdeen Angus in our area, or endless barley fields. Dotted around the valleys you often see abandoned stone cottages, sometimes with a slate roof, but often little more than the walls still standing. They point to a dark episode in Scottish history. Two hundred years ago there was a different landscape, many such cottages with two or three generations of a family and a few acres of land that grew potatoes, oats, barley, some root crops, hay to feed a few cows, and several scrawny sheep bearing little resemblance to today's fluffy Blackface sheep.There were few if any of the towns you see today. It was a tough life, living at the mercy of bad weather, potato blight or other farm diseases. As most smallholdings were rented from a laird, there was rent to be paid no matter the weather. Every ten years or so when crops failed there was widespread famine.

What changed it all? The march of the sheep. Beginning in the 1750s, they came from the south, a relentless white tide that swallowed up farm after farm. Landlords, who often ran up huge debts from dubious financial gambles, soon realized that a large sheep farm would give them four times the income and much less bother than the rents from so many smallholdings. Wool fetched a premium price as did mutton, with very little outlay of cash. New sheep breeds appeared that had more meat, ample wool, and withstood the frigid Scottish winters. As often happens, the financial factors were only part of the reasons for change. Poor people, living on the land where you can't control them, are inconventient for politicians. The Clearances lasted over a hundred years, a slow process of forced eviction and land confiscations leading to the establishment of the large farms you see today. The population density in the highlands fell, while the sheep population soared. During a particularly dark chapter, violence broke out between the people being evicted and the sheep farmers. Land administrators, known in Scotland as factors, were known to burn cottages to prevent them being re-occupied. Economists suggested that people would just fit into new jobs on the new farms, but mechanization resulted in much fewer people being needed. More benevolent landowners resettled their tenants in newvillages that took root in those days. Many emigrated to Canada or to the States.

What about the future? Todays farms are scarcely profitable; many exist for mainly two reasons 1. Cheap diesel oil and fertilizer 2. European Union subsidies. When the price of oil rises, as it must when the effects of peak oil become felt, the high price of diesel and fertilizer will make the present system unsustainable.
George Monboit, a writer for "The Guardian" looks at one scenario.

Higher food prices already are making people see the advantages of growing their own. Vegetable allotments so popular that, in big cities you often have to wait for years to get one. Some cities are changing their parks into allotments. It doesn't take much imagination to see the trend extend into the countryside. We may be coming full circle, back to the old crofting days.

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