Sheepish sheep

A Sheepish History of the World

Alan Marshall takes a deep dive into the sheepish history of the world and explores how sheep may continue to shape our landscapes in the future. 


8000 BC: It Started in Mesopotamia

Up until the end of the last Ice Age, humans hunted sheep like they did any other wild animal. But when the glaciers retreated, this predatory behavior slowly gave way to the more intimate relationship that we call ‘domestication’. Domestication probably first began about 10,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, when orphaned lambs were adopted and managed by nomads and farmers. In exchange for milk and wool, ancient humans provided sheep with some tender care, security from predators, and access to fresh pasture.

Over the course of the next four millennia, and with sheep in heavy presence, Mesopotamian settlements grew larger and larger, transforming from villages into towns and so on; until the first city was born, sometime around 4000BC. 

The creation of the world’s first towns and cities relied greatly upon domesticated sheep since they provided a more secure food source than hunting would allow. More crucially, sheep’s wool was an important trading good as it was non-perishable, transportable, and of high value to all persons interested in cloth or clothes. Sheep, then, were central to the ‘fabric of society’; as this 4600 year old wood panel from the ancient city of Ur shows.

The Standard of Ur – Wood Panel (2600 BC)

4000 BC: Meanwhile in Britain…

At roughly the same time that sheep were helping to create the world’s first cities in Mesopotamia, Britain was also starting out on a long transformation of its landscape through the sheep-human relationship. As ancient Britons came to adopt and love sheep, they tried to provide for them the grassy pastures that sheep craved. What this meant was that trees would often have to be cleared away. 

In 4000 BC, Britain was covered in forests from top to bottom. Over the course of the next 2000 years, though, about fifty-percent of forests had gone. Not all this deforestation served to benefit just sheep, of course, since other types of farming needed cleared lands as well. But the human desire to please our woolly friends and give them access to the grazing they needed is a significant factor in Britain’s deforestation.

By the time of the Norman conquest, in 1066 AD, Britain’s forest cover had decreased to fifteen-percent. The Normans appreciated the value of sheep as much as the ancients and many of England’s ‘newly-landed’ Norman nobles committed bigtime to sheep farming. So much so, that in just over a century, the number of sheep in Britain doubled. The sheep population was also bolstered by monastic orders who had been granted land by Norman rulers and then devoted large swathes of that land to rearing sheep.

Sheep Among the Ruins of a Medieval Abbey – Louis Pierre Verwee, c1850

Two centuries after the Norman invasion, England’s King Edward I also appreciated the value of sheep farming as a national money-earner. After ascending to the throne, Edward I began taxing the wool trade to raise extra royal revenue. In the 1280s, Edward used this revenue stream to pay for an army so that he could conquer Wales. After a successful campaign of conquest, his nobles then populated Wales with even more sheep.

Edward I’s sheep-powered invasion of Wales transformed the look of the Welsh built landscape. Before the conquest, Wales was dotted by many wooden fortresses built by various Welsh kings and chiefs. After Wales was subdued, the English King constructed mighty stone castles to permanently secure military and economic control of his new domain.

Pembroke Castle (with sheep) – Hendrik Frans de Cort (c1800)

14th Century: Britain Declares War against France Over Threats to Wool Trade

Edward I’s grandson, King Edward III, was also a big fan of sheepish taxes during his 14th century reign. In fact, Edward III came to rely so heavily on the all-important Anglo-Flemish wool trade for financing all manner of adventures that he declared war when French expansion threatened this trade. He also had a claim on the French throne backdated to his French mother, Isabella of France. However, most all of France fiercely rejected this claim. 

The Cloth Market in Ghent, Flanders, in the late Middle Ages – Felix de Vigne (c1862)

The war that arose from Edward III’s disputes with France was long drawn out. In fact, the war lasted from 1337 until 1453 and is referred to nowadays as the Hundred Years War. Probably, the English were only able to make the conflict last so very long because loyal English warrior sheep voraciously munched away on English grasses to keep the prosperous Anglo-Flemish wool trade up and running.

Landscape with Sheep – Leon-Viktor Dupre (c1850)

18th Century: Britain Outlaws Free Flow of Sheep and Wool in American Colonies

Three centuries after England had lost the One Hundred Years War to France, Great Britain had become the world’s greatest sea power and could boast of possessing colonies all over North America. Yet, these colonies were also an economic threat. To those looking from England at America in the 18th century, much of the American landscape seemed to be perfect sheep raising country. The big landowners in Britain feared that if America became a sizable wool-producing region, their own profits would be severely dented. Thus, the parliament in London passed many laws restricting the free flow of sheep and wool into and out of the American colonies. 

This long obstruction by Britain of America’s sheep potential provided yet another economic reason for Americans to revolt against their British overseers. Perhaps if Britain had let America develop freely as a sheep country, the American Revolution would have lost steam before it got going. 

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C. – Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1859

19th Century: Britain Colonised Australia and New Zealand with the Help of Sheep 

The loss of the American colonies after the American Revolutionary War in the 1780s did not dampen British interest in forging new dominions across the world. When Britain colonized  Australia and New Zealand in the 19th century, this time they saw the wisdom in allowing sheep to be part of the process. 

Scottish Highland Family Migrating to New Zealand (with sheep) – William Allsworth, 1844.

However, to make the new antipodean lands suitable for massive flocks of pasture-hungry sheep, the ancient woodlands and virgin forests of Australasia were often cleared away. Sheep farming in Britain took some five thousand years to heavily degrade the woodlands and forests of Britain. In these new southern sheep countries of the British Empire, ecologically transformative levels of deforestation were wrought in just over a century.

19th Century: The Industrial Revolution in Britain

Turning back to Britain once more – this time the Britain of the 19th century — sheep were making an essential contribution to the start of the Industrial Revolution. In the early 19th century, machine-driven factory production was coming of age. This was especially the case in the textile industries of northern England.  The cotton textile industry paved the way in this process and its products dominated markets around the globe. Yet cotton only developed into such an enormous world-beating industry in northern England because a woolen textile industry had long existed there previously. This meant textile business networks were already in place along with an abundance of experienced textile workers. The commercial success of the machine-driven factory in the textiles sector was then emulated in countless other industries in Britain and across the world.

sheepish sheep
Manchester from Kersal Moor – William Wyld, 1852

Since the Industrial Revolution, the stature of sheep and of sheep farming has waned on the world stage. Other textiles, both natural and artificial, now dominate the global marketplace and other foods have arisen to out-compete those which sheep can provide. 

Sheepscapes of the Future

However, lest we begin to feel the importance of sheep is confined to history, let me also quickly survey the potential future of sheep. Given that sheep have a sizable environmental cost, it is good for us to consider how we might transform them into being ecological creatures as we project their possible futures. 

Since we have come a long way very quickly in this article (some 10,000 years in 1000 words already), let us go forward in time at the same grand scale with the same galloping pace. Depicted below are four ‘sheepscapes’ set at various timescales in the future, starting from about 100 years hence and moving forward to 10,000 AD.

The largest city in modern day Mesopotamia is Baghdad, located right next to the site of the ancient city of Babylon. Every day, Baghdad sprawls a little more into the countryside, over-running nearby rural villages. The future scenario laid out here — set around a century from now — presupposes that sheep-farmers are still resolutely hanging-on to their flocks despite their villages and fields being swallowed up by the expanding city. 

A Mesopotamian Sheepscape of the Future – Mosaic Suburbs in Baghdad. By Alan Marshall.

In this future Baghdad, an urban-rural mosaic emerges, where fields and wastelands are interspersed with gardens and buildings. Sheep and their shepherds can make a home here since there is enough wasteland vegetation to graze upon and because sheep’s milk and cheese is eagerly sought by nearby suburban consumers. The sheep can also be rented-out to graze as eco friendly weed control for private gardens and public reserves.

Wool is a remarkable natural insulator against cold and rain. Set in the Cambrian Mountains some two centuries ahead, this Welsh village uses woolly roofs to insulate against bitter highland winters.

A Welsh Sheepscape of the Future – A Village in the Cambrian Mountains. By Alan Marshall.

Although sheep are usually presented as cute and natural, they could also be construed as evil climate change monsters. This is because sheep fart-out lots of methane, a potent Greenhouse Gas. In this scenario, though, Welsh farmers of the future have worked out the precise recipe for a climate-friendly sheep diet which radically lowers the amount of methane that each sheep can produce.  

Given the past destruction of British woodlands caused by the desire to farm sheep, this following scenario — set maybe one thousand years into the future — seeks to envisage a more sustainable relationship between trees, sheep and humans. It does so by forecasting the Millennium-long reemergence of the ancient Forest of Arden into and throughout the city of Birmingham.

sheepish future sheep
An English Sheepscape of the Future – Birmingham and the Forest of Arden. By Alan Marshall.

Intermingled within verdant urban woodlands, clear canal waters, and sustainable buildings, are leighs, fields, and meadows — co-habited by suburban sheep. The sheep serve as organic lawnmowers, roaming freely to service the park-like landscape for the communal benefit of all. In this future, the homes and automobiles of the suburb are also given a ‘retro’ feel which –along with the sheep — mark out a link to the region’s heritage.  

The following scenario is rather different from those above. It is set in 10,000AD in a polluted landscape of the American West. Here now, the world has become so chronically polluted with deadly hazards that the locals must live out their lives entirely confined inside ‘moonbase’ homes.  

An American Sheepscape of the Future – ‘Moonbase Homes’ in the American West. By Alan Marshall.

These moonbase homes enable humans to self-isolate from all manner of futuristic harms: fatal urban smog, radioactive dust, or global pandemics. The homes exist as closed life-support systems able to recycle and purify both air and water. They can also act as greenhouses for the cultivation of fruits and vegetables. As for the sheep, since the humans are permanently self-isolated indoors, wild species of sheep — like the now rare Bighorn — can reclaim landscape it had previously lost to over-hunting and over-development.

Whatever the future holds for sheep as a species, in current times sheep are still significant creatures of the modern world. There are after, all, at least one billion sheep on the planet. In archetypal sheep nations like Wales and New Zealand, they number about 10 million and 25 million respectively. That is far more than their human counterparts. 

In the lands of Mesopotamia, sheep are also still a central part of rural life and in China, where there are nearly 200 million of them, sheep farming is a growing industry. In other parts of Asia, and in Africa as well, sheep are vital assets in the lives of millions of subsistence farmers. Thus, throughout the world, in a myriad of economic settings, sheep are right now working constructively with humans. This relationship has lasted 10,000 years so far and — if we work through our environmental challenges together – it will hopefully last another 10,000.

A Sheepish History of the World

For more information please view: A Sheepish History of the World: Educational Video (Produced by Alan Marshall & Nanthawan Kaenkaew)

Alan Marshall, BSc (hons), M.Phil., Ph.D., was born and bred in New Zealand and educated at university level in Britain and Australia. He is currently a lecturer in the environmental social sciences program at Mahidol University, Thailand.