Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meet the Sheep: Harriet, Charlotte, and Sybil

By: Allison Shelly, Farm Programs Intern
Have you ever considered a career in sheep smuggling? It probably is not the best of career choices, but a long time ago, sheep smugglers helped to bring one of the most important sheep into our country. Why were sheep being smuggled, you ask? Read on and learn about our very own Merino sheep, why the breed is so important and what smuggling has to do with their introduction to the United States 

Merino sheep originate from Spain and for a long time were known as the Spanish Merino. These sheep were and still are very highly praised for their wool. Unlike the Tunis and the Cheviot, who are considered mostly meat breeds, the wool on the Merino is the breed’s best attribute. Merino wool has many properties that make it highly desirable. The way Merino wool is structured makes it nearly waterproof, since it can hold up to 30 percent of its own weight in water and still not feel wet. Many times people consider wool as itchy and heavy; Merino wool has a different structure that doesn’t irritate the skin as much, feeling less itchy. In addition, it is also fire resistant and tends not to get smelly as quickly as other fabrics. Many modern sportswear companies use Merino wool in their clothing because of all these natural properties.  
One of our Merinos, showing off her mid-summer coat.
While people in the past might not have understood specifically why Merino wool did all these things, there was definitely a high regard for Merinos and their wool. Spain wanted to keep a monopoly on the sheep and taking a sheep out of the country was punishable by death unless the king had given special permission. Even with their strict control of the sheep, the monarchs would gift small flocks to their allies to help them improve their sheep. Through selective breeding the countries were able to improve the local sheep with Merino blood and the monopoly Spain had on Merino wool became challenged.

While those countries in Spain’s favor managed to get a few Merinos out of Spain, the United States did not come into the mix until later. In 1785, a group in South Carolina offered a prize to the person who kept the first Merino flock in the United States. Eight years later, William Foster of Boston, Massachusetts smuggled three Merinos out of Spain and had them shipped to the States. He was called to France shortly after and left these prize sheep with a friend. Unfortunately, his friend did not understand their value and used them for his dinner table, claiming the meat to be excellent. Years later, Foster found his friend at an auction buying a Merino for $1,000. 

Foster’s sheep may very well have been the first Merinos in the United States, but others would continue to introduce the breed. In 1801, a Merino ram, named Don Pedro, was relocated a number of times until landing near Wilmington, Delaware. With the help of Don Pedro and more importations of Merinos, large flocks of pure breed and part breed Merinos could soon be found in Delaware.
The famous ram, Don Pedro.
From: Carman, Ezra A, H.A.Heath, and John Minto, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bureau of Animal Industry. Special Report on the History and Present Condition of the Sheep Industry of the United States. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1892.
One man, Robert R Livingston, took special interest in Merinos during his time as minister of France. He imported three Merinos from France to his home in New York State in 1802, believing them to be the first Merinos imported into the country. Shortly afterwards, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Essays on Sheep: Their Varieties- Account of the Merinoes of Spain, France ect. in which he promotes the breed, claiming them to be the “first rank” of all sheep and to have the best wool of all sheep in Europe. With the help of this pamphlet and his continued interest in importing and collecting Merinos, Livingston was able to spread the word about this breed and increase its popularity in New York State. By 1808, the New York State Legislature was offering an award to any person who would import a Merino ram into any county that did not already have one. If the ram lived in that county for a year they would receive a $50 premium. It was with Livingston’s help that Merinos became popular in New York.

One of our Merinos and her lambs. Stop by and visit them!
By 1845, Merinos were cheap enough for any farmer to afford, and would have been a worthwhile investment due to the high quality of their wool. The museum’s very own Merinos, Sybil, Charlotte and Harriet, carry on the proud heritage of Merino sheep. Come out and see them! You’ll recognize them because Merinos have more oils in their wool, which cause the fleece to become dirtier. Also, while the Tunis and Cheviots have bald faces and legs, Merino wool goes down their legs and over their forehead. Charlotte, Harriet, Sybil and their lambs would love for you to visit and admire their beautiful fleeces! 

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