Napoleon and the sheep

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(HOST) Commentator Ruth Page explains how it was that Napoleon’s defeat of the Portuguese army led to Vermont’s sheep-raising craze.

(PAGE) Napoleon had a lot to do with Vermont’s earlier depen- dence on sheep, which, in turn, had a lot to do with our lovely old stone walls, now a subject of much interest.

What Napoleon did was defeat Portugal in 1809. What Portugal had been doing was breeding and raising prime merino sheep. Their wool was prized for its softness and beauty. When the country was defeated, sheep farmers couldn’t afford to continue
on their devastated land.

So, in 1810, the American consul in Portugal imported some of the handsome merino sheep to try raising them on his farm back in Vermont. They thrived, and in two years, his neighbors were trying the same thing. Historians say a sort of “sheep fever” set in. There was a tariff on British wool, so the early states were delight- ed to have untaxed wool grown in their own country.

Vermont farmers spent 30 years clearing forests to establish as much grazing land as possible. Sheep-farmers even cleared most hillsides and the top ridges of the hills to make way for their eager grazers.

Soon Vermont’s bones began to show; the fields were overgrazed, and we can still see the rocky outcrops that the sheep uncovered. When the land’s richness was thoroughly depleted, the sheep raisers had to give up.

In the meantime, though, they had greatly altered the landscape. They protected their flocks by erecting stone fences everywhere, even up on the high hillsides where the work was extremely diff- icult. The fences had to be of stone; the trees had all been cut down to provide land for grazing.

Today, the forests have returned (and been cut down again, in some cases, but with thousands of acres still beautifying the land). Woodland visitors enjoy seeing the old stone fences near the trails.

The over-grazed land was one of the causes of the famous west- ward move of Vermonters. With poor soil, few trees and no grazing land, they couldn’t manage cattle or lumbering, so many simply pulled up stakes and went west. There’s a township named Vermont in Wisconsin to this day.

The old stone fences lacing the woodlands have created their own different habitats, being studied by naturalists and others interest- ed in their effect on plant and animal life.

As for those early sheep herders, I suppose it no more occurred to them that using the land so intensively might spoil it than it occurs to fishing fleets today that catching fish by the ton is pretty sure to deplete even the richness of our vast oceans, as it has, in fact, done.

This is Ruth Page, enjoying the old stone fences on her wood- walks because of the sense of connection to early settlers it inspires.

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