The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900

The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900

The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900

The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800-1900

Synopsis

As Britain industrialized in the early nineteenth century, animal breeders faced the need to convert livestock into products while maintaining the distinctive character of their breeds. Thus they transformed cattle and sheep adapted to regional environments into bulky, quick-fattening beasts. Exploring the environmental and economic ramifications of imperial expansion on colonial environments and production practices, Rebecca J. H. Woods traces how global physiological and ecological diversity eroded under the technological, economic, and cultural system that grew up around the production of livestock by the British Empire. Attending to the relationship between type and place and what it means to call a particular breed of livestock "native," Woods highlights the inherent tension between consumer expectations in the metropole and the ecological reality at the periphery.

Based on extensive archival work in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, this study illuminates the connections between the biological consequences and the politics of imperialism. In tracing both the national origins and imperial expansion of British breeds, Woods uncovers the processes that laid the foundation for our livestock industry today.

Excerpt

At the outer edge of the North Atlantic continental shelf, fifty miles of sea between it and the Outer Hebrides, lies St Kilda, a small archipelago of volcanic origin that is home to an unusual ovine population alleged by conservationists and scientists to be “the most primitive domestic form [of sheep] in Europe.” Soay sheep, so called after their original islet, are dark brown or buff in color, horned, and celebrated for their resemblance to Ovis musimon, or the mouflon, the nearest wild relative of Ovis aries. Archeological evidence seems to support this contention, as do the color-markings of a subset of the population, whose white bellies and dark brown coats—an unusual combination among domesticated ovines—make them strongly reminiscent of the mouflon’s own appearance. Add to this the fact that Soays are self-shedding (a common feature of wild ovines) and “behave much more like wild animals than modern domestic breeds,” and it is easy to see why ecologists, environmentalists, and members of the public believe Soays are “the only living remnant” of “ those first civilized cultures of our islands,” surviving the passage of time relatively unchanged since Neolithic farmers and fishers are believed to have (temporarily) settled the remote islands.

Soay sheep were also among the first domesticated animals targeted for conservation in the twentieth century: in 1932 the laird of St Kilda relocated 107 sheep from their eponymous home to neighboring Hirta in an effort to establish a satellite population as insurance against the possibility of the breed’s extinction on Soay. At the same time, a handful of wealthy mainland conservation-minded eccentrics began taking up “some of the wild sheep of Soay” as park animals, establishing them on great estates dotted throughout England and Wales, again, “in case they die out on Soay.” By the 1970s, relocating portions of populations of numerically challenged, unusual, or historically interesting types of livestock in this way as insurance against future threats had become standard practice within a growing popular movement to preserve and protect rare or endangered breeds of livestock in Great Britain. Britain’s first and foremost organization for breed conservation, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST), worked zealously in the 1960s and 1970s to relocate populations of insular or other wise isolated types of sheep to and from various corners of the United Kingdom.

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