Sheep History in Donegal
Origin and Breeds
Sheep are a common feature in the Donegal landscape. The low population density of the county combined with its hilly and mountainous landscape provides a suitable environment for sheep grazing.
Very few of the breeds that exist in Ireland today are native. The main breeds that can be found in Donegal are the Cheviot and the Scottish Black-Faced Mountain sheep. The Galway and Soay breeds are also reared locally but only in small numbers. The survival of breeds in Donegal in the 19th and early 20th century depended largely on the quality of their wool and the economic pressure of the wool market. As most wool today is imported, Donegal sheep are raised primarily for their meat.
The wool of Cheviot sheep is used mainly for the tweed trade. This breed originated from England and was imported into Ireland in large quantities at the turn of the 19th century to improve and eventually replace the native stock. They are resilient to windy conditions and their wool is soft and can be worn comfortably against skin. They have wool-free faces and black feet.
Scottish black-faced mountain sheep had arrived in Ireland by the mid 19th century. This small-horned breed has medium length slightly brittle wool that is more suited for carpets than clothes.
The wool of the Galway Breed is of high quality and is soft, white and comfortable to wear against the skin. The Soay breed is quite primitive with thick horns and a light-brown fleece, which moults annually. The wool of the Soay is primarily soft but can contain occasional coarse hairs that guard the soft wool from dirt and water.
Importance of Wool Trade to Donegal
Due to the isolated and rural nature of West Donegal, the production of wool products remained essentially a cottage industry until the early 20th century. Products such as clothes and carpets were produced throughout the county but were mostly for home use.
Carding and spinning was practiced at home using the Donegal spinning wheel, which was a modified version of the Dutch flax wheel. Knitting was also practiced at home while weaving was carried out by designated weavers within the local area. The hand loom was common up until the late 19th century after which the fly-shuttle loom became popular. Socks, jumpers, hats and blankets were the most commonly produced woollen goods, as living conditions were often hard and the locals were only able to produce enough products for themselves. An export industry was virtually non-existent.
In 1891 a new land act was introduced by the British government and as a result the Congested Districts Board was established with an aim to improve local industry by encouraging large scale food and textile production in the west of Ireland. The quality of work produced by the spinners and handweavers in Donegal was immediately recognised by the Congested Districts Board. They invited a very successful Scottish textile manucfacturer, Alexander Morton to Donegal with the aim of eventually opening a factory. Morton believed that a high-quality handwoven carpet industry could prove profitable and in 1898 set up the first hand-weaving factory in Killybegs (south-west Donegal).
By 1904 four factories under Morton were in operation and by 1906 the number of employees rose to 600. As well as creating employment in weaving, the industry gave a welcome boost to sheep shearing in the locality. The business grew from strength to strength and by the 1950's the company, although under new ownership, was recognised worldwide as a high-quality industry. Other companies such as Magees, Molloys and Connemara Fabrics established tweed factories and the woollen industry in Donegal underwent a large-scale revival as a result.
The importance of the tweed industry to Donegal nowadays is marginal in terms of economic output but in terms of tourism and heritage it is of huge importance, as it has derived and evolved from skilled local craftsmanship for over 200 years. It is also gaining increasing popularty in the design and art world, with many skilled artists and crafts people producing material from Donegal.
Sheep and the economy
The wool industry grew dramatically in Ireland during the mid 17th century, declined in the 18th and stagnated in the first half of the 19th century. This is primarily due to the growth of the linen industry, combined with the decrease in wool exports to England as a result of long-term protests by members of the English wool industry.
The sheep industry that exists today is primarily for producing meat, with most wool being exported into the country. The Irish sheep population currently numbers around 3.5 million.
Political Impact of Sheep: The Gweedore Sheep War
In the 18th century most of the farming land in Ireland was owned and run by landlords who leased tracts of lands to local tenants in order to generate revenue. Following the Great Famine (1845-1849) the loss of revenue among landlords encouraged them to increase rent and the cost of living among the tenants. Tensions had arisen as a result.
By 1855 some landlords in Donegal had allocated large enclosed tracts of lands to English and Scottish farmers for the purpose of mass sheep grazing. It was around this period that the Scottish Black-faced breed was introduced. Local tenants who previously held tracts in these large enclosures were either forced to move or evicted. Fines were imposed on local tenants if their sheep were found grazing in these large enclosures. The small tenant holders suffered greatly as a result of the loss of grazing areas.
The Gweedore Sheep war began in December 1856 when around forty local men raided the house of a Scottish shepherd and ordered him to leave the country within eight days. Raids followed on the large sheep enclosures. By August 1856 almost 1,000 Black-faced sheep had been reported missing or killed in the Gweedore area.
The resulting conflict was reported by media across Ireland, the United Kingdom and even the United States. Claims of missing sheep were investigated with force and in some cases the blame was laid on the shepherds as a result of negligence, combined with the harsh environment the Scottish-Black faced sheep were being introduced to. Police presence was raised in the area, and the increase in police constables were supported by imposing a tax on the local populace, which was labelled as the 'Police Tax'. By late 1857, numerous arrests were made, and the taxes and police presence had taken its toll on the local populace. By summer 1858 the Gweedore Sheep War was effectively over.
Gweedore was not the only region to suffer with the creation of large grazing areas for imported sheep. In 1861 Lord John George Adair evicted over 250 people from the Derryveagh region in order to create large grazing areas for imported Scottish Sheep. The effects of the mass evictions in Derryveagh can still be seen today, while much of the now uninhabited region has become part of Glenveagh National Park.