Why the stone walls? Follow the sheep boom, bust | Local News
What happened to the sheep farms in the mid-19th century and the stone walls that once served them?
According to Tom Wessels’ Reading the Woods: A Natural History of New England, the 19th century sheep boom began in Europe, but was then exacerbated by the New England circumstances that made it a bust.
Wessels, who holds a BS in Wildlife Biology from the University of New Hampshire and lives in Putney, Vt., Writes that “sheep fever” led to deforestation in central New England during the sheep farming boom from 1810-1840 got building stone walls to keep the sheep at bay.
Another source of information on the sheep boom is the state geologist Ron Chormann. As his archive of images such as paintings from the White Mountain School of Art with bucolic valley scenes shows, by 1840, 75 percent of New Hampshire was open land – the opposite of today’s landscape in the state.
“It is difficult to fathom how much of the landscape was cleared: about seven eighths of the cities were open, but on average between 50 and 60 percent,” said Chormann.
According to Wessels’ “Reading the Forested Landscape” (Countryman Press, 2005), the boom can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars.
Before the Portuguese aristocracy lost to Napoleon in 1809, the Portuguese aristocracy had a special type of sheep called merino, which were highly regarded for their abundant fleece and the very soft, high quality wool they produced. The Portuguese have rigorously protected their interests by imposing an embargo on the export of the breed from Portugal.
“With their defeat,” writes Wessels, “came the loss of control over the merino, which in 1810 opened the door to William Jarvis, the then American consul to Portugal, to import 4,000 sheep into his Weathersfield, Vt.” Farm.”
After the War of 1812, the US imposed a tariff on English goods, including wool, and a “thirty-year period of” sheep fever “swept across Central New England,” Wessels writes.
“Between 1810 and 1820, the number of textile factories in the region that process merino wool tripled. With the increased demand for wool, the merino population increased dramatically, “says Wessels.
For example, Vermont’s 4,000 sheep population rose to 475,000 by 1824. By 1840, it peaked at 1.7 million in 1840. The same trend took place in New Hampshire, peaking at more than 600,000 by 1840, ”said Wessels.
To support all of these sheep, the landscape in central New England changed dramatically. Wessels notes that few sites have been excluded from pastureland creation efforts, including “steep slopes, hilltops and even heavily bouldered areas.”
All of these pastures needed fences.
Before 1840, most of the fences were made of wood, with butt fences eventually being replaced by wood. But with the loss of forest, Wessels writes, wood became scarce, and farmers instead turned to cairns that had been removed from their rocky farmland, using the stones left behind by glacial deposits 12,000 years ago.
“What amazes me is that these rocks that you see in stone walls were all placed by hand,” says Chormann.
It was necessary to separate different cultures and protect open land from harm. Fences were also used as border lines during colonial times to separate the landowners’ acreage.
The sheep craze peaked in the early 1840s. By 1840, New Hampshire had more than two sheep per person, an average of 65 sheep per square mile.
But when the competition and oversupply caused by imports from outside New England and successful selective breeding of merino sheep finally lowered prices, the wool market collapsed.
Other factors included railroads, cotton production, soil impoverishment, the industrial revolution, people abandoning their less fertile rocky farms in New Hampshire for the Midwest, and other conflicting circumstances, all of which challenged the best of the best for brief periods for sheep farmers, said the lecturer at the NH Humanities Council, Steve Taylor from Meriden.
Taylor is the state’s former Agriculture Commissioner. An earlier presentation titled “The Great Sheep Boom and Its Enduring Legacy in the New Hampshire Countryside” provided an overview of the rise and fall of the industry and its impact on the landscape.
In an interview earlier this week, he said, “The walls kept the sheep, as well as those of your neighbors, out of grain fields and prevented them from mingling with his flock.”
As for the economic crash, soil depletion caused by overgrazing was a factor. Taylor remarked, “The soils, especially in the highland areas of New Hampshire, were sagging and unable to produce enough grass forage for these farms – they simply had too many animals. In the 1840s the land abandonment began and the land returned to the forest. “
Overgrazing also caused erosion that led to flooding.
In Reading the Forested Landscape, Wessels writes that the first farms to be abandoned were mountain farms built on the thin and poorer soils.
Valley bottom farms, with the richer soils, could continue to function as market farms, and some shifted to raising dairy cattle after the 1850s to provide milk for the mill towns that had emerged during the sheep boom.
Still, these farms also fell into difficult times as they tried to compete with larger farms in the Plains and California.
Sheep farms have long since disappeared and the forests have reclaimed many pastures over the past century. All of this explains why people come across these stone walls on a hike in the middle of the forest.