- The Herds Shot Round the World: Native Breeds and the British Empire, 1800–1900 by Rebecca J. H. Woods
We associate the economic growth of the nineteenth century with cotton, iron, and steam, but the working-class standard of living rose mainly from the cheaper food that came from increased agricultural productivity and imports. Woods' short book explores the development of the systematic breeding of sheep and cattle that increased British meat production as population growth and urbanization dramatically increased demand in the late eighteenth century. Later, the knowledge of animal breeding and the animals themselves established herds in Australasia and North America that greatly augmented meat supplies.
By the seventeenth century, British farmers raised a large number of noticeably different types of sheep and cattle, each usually associated with ecological regions—of which Britian has an abundance relative to is size. With the spread of enclosure and mixed farming, interest in breeding improved animals took hold. The major challenge for breeders was the reliable transmission of desirable traits from selected animals to their offspring. Woods has drawn exhaustively from contemporary sources, particularly agricultural periodicals, to document both the growing understanding of "breeds" and the effect of the learning involved. She concentrates on two breeds—merino sheep and Hereford cattle, both of which are significant in British practice but neither at the forefront of British improvement. These breeds did, however, play central roles in the development of herds in the temperate areas of Australasia and North America. Wood first documents the effort (and failure) to incorporate the exceptionally fine wool of Merino sheep from Spain into English flocks and then to establish the export-oriented sheep economics of Australia and New Zealand. Hereford cattle, initially almost exclusive to that county, proved exceptionally adaptable to overseas conditions, eventually becoming the basis of overseas beef production for the British market. British provision of breeding stock became a major activity.
Understanding of the source of differentiation hereditability was a learning process. Debate raged about the relative importance of heredity and environment since the two factors tended to coincide in Britain (readers would benefit from a brief update regarding these issues). The general lack of success of merino sheep provided fuel to the debate. Those who emphasized environment pointed out that merino wool raised in Britain lacked some of the fine character of Spanish wool, suffering from the damp English climate. A third element of the breeding equation also entered into the marino story. By the early nineteenth century, mutton mattered at least as much as wool in English sheep raising. Attempts to cross-breed marinos with fat improved English sheep, particularly with new Leicesters, failed in England.
Colonial context made a difference. Marino sheep thrived in Australia's harsh climate, which was similar to that of Spain. In New Zealand, [End Page 500] environment again came to the fore. Marinos easily adjusted to extreme climates but could not adapt to milder and damper ones. After refrigeration allowed for shipment of meat to Britain, New Zealand breeders successfully produced the Corriedale sheep that maintained much of the fineness of marino wool with the mutton in demand in Britain. Initially, at least, the breed stock for Australasia came from Britain, but as the Coriedale demonstrated, colonial breeders came to stand alone.
The story of the Hereford was similar. This breed lacked the prestige of highly bred shorthorns in Britain, but it found value as a beef cattle. It proved extremely adaptable to the extreme conditions in North America. Hereford bulls from Britain improved "native" cattle in Canada and the United States, supporting the imports that comprised much of the British meat supply after the 1880s. In the twentieth century, North American Herefords developed into larger cattle than their English counterparts and began to challenge British breeding stock even in Britain.
The narrative of this short, interesting book is a masterly construction from contemporary sources, and but the source of its strength also betrays a weakness...