The English Wool Trade

Chapter 2 : Economics of Sheep-Farming

The average number of sheep owned was around 20 – 30. Often, people would combine some sheep-ownership with other professions. The largest flocks numbered in the thousands. Sir Henry Fermor of East Barsham, Norfolk, died in 1521 with 20 flocks totalling 15,500 head.

During the sixteenth century, the government attempted to limit the number of sheep individuals could own – in 1533, the maximum was set at 2,400. Sheep could not be farmed to the exclusion of other livestock; for every 60 animals, at least one milking cow was required by a statue of 1555, and a calf for every 120 sheep.

Despite this attempt at limiting individual flock size, over the sixteenth century flocks continued to increase, with a corresponding decrease in the number of individual flock-owners. As with everything, sheep-farming benefited from economies of scale.

The value of each sheep would, of course. grow or decline in line with the value of wool, and food. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, a wether (an adult castrated ram), was worth about three or four times the value of its annual wool production.

In the century from 1450, the price of wool doubled, whilst the price of grain remained more-or-less static until the 1520s, after which point grain prices rose steeply, doubling within 20 years, despite the general ban on grain export.

During the period 1540 – 1547, annual raw wool export averaged 5,025 sacks, and the equivalent of 28,790 sacks of finished cloth.  About half the amount of cloth was retained for the home market, so a total of 50,723 sacks has been estimated as the annual production of wool for England and Wales in those years. This has been calculated as equating to 10,700,000 sheep (including lambs and yearlings).

The massive inflation which stalked England in the 1540s and the depreciation of the currency created problems; the Staplers agitated tor control of wool sales and to cut out the middlemen, whom they blamed for keeping prices of raw wool high. Legislation was introduced in 1552, preventing stocks going to foreign purchasers, at least between Easter and the Feast of the Purification (February), and giving first refusal to Staplers of wool sold at local markets.

Trade was further restricted by wool-producers being fined for holding stock for more than a year, if they had been offered the market price for it – a market now almost entirely in the hands of the Staplers. Should the producer ignore this, there was a profit of 5s per tod of wool for any informer who laid an information against him to the magistrates. The Crown collected the same amount in fines.

Also aimed at controlling the activities of middlemen was the 1551 provision preventing the resale of sheep within 5 weeks of purchase.

Whether the legislation was to blame, or wider economic factors, in 1551, the price of English wool and cloth for export collapsed, not recovering for a quarter of a century. At the same time, the price of grain was continuing its massive growth, and enclosing for sheep-farming more or less stopped.

The anti-competitive legislation of 1551 was gradually chipped away by special licences granted to particular areas – Norfolk, Halifax and Woodstock to name but three – where local growers and middlemen were free to trade as they chose.  

There was another boom in wool price between 1603 – 1610, followed by a further dramatic fall, leaving the price of a stone of wool in Lincolnshire in 1622 at 10s, compared with 12s in 1595.

The value of the fleece was a combination of weight and the type of wool the animal produced. As a rule of thumb, sheep reared on better pasture (usually lowland) make longer, coarser wool, whilst sheep pastured on the uplands have shorter, finer wool. As more land was transferred from arable to sheep, longer wool began to increase in prevalence, with a resulting loss in reputation, and increased competition from Spain as the provider of the finest wool in Europe. Shearing took place in mid-summer, a couple of weeks after the flock had been washed. Skilled handlers could wash around 100 animals per day, but only shear around 80.

It has been estimated that, in 1600, the best English wool Lemster Ore, was produced along the Welsh Border, in Herefordshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, with the next best quality coming from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and Hampshire. In Gloucestershire, sheep were generally of either the Ryeland (sometimes known as Hereford) or the Cotswold variety.  Cotswolds were not as fine as Herefords, but produced fine, heavy fleeces, although the breed deteriorated over time.

The benefit of longer wools was their suitability for worsted, which was the major growth area for cloth. Worsted is different from woollen cloth, in that it is smoother, harder, stronger and finer: think wool suit versus knitted jumper. By the 1570s, the flocks of Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Buckinghamshire were thought particularly suitable for it.

Meat was a minor product of a sheep’s utility, with few being slaughtered until their wool was no longer of high enough quality. With the collapse in prices in the 1550s, more mutton began to appear on the market, and this continued well into the next century. The growing size of London was a factor in this – a wealthy merchant class demanded more meat in its diet. By 1600, mutton chops from Oxfordshire and Wiltshire were gracing London tables, arriving on the hoof and being sold at Smithfield market. Welsh mutton was particularly prized for its sweetness.

The other by-product of sheep that had a value was the manure – important for arable farming. Animals could be leased for a year to replenish exhausted land, with the owner often taking payment in the animal’s wool.

There were sheepskins or fells too, from the slaughtered beasts. Just before it was dissolved in 1536, Norwich Priory sold 516 fells for £4 6s. The skins might be used for leather or parchment, and the wool scrapings for bedding. The use of sheep’s milk for drinking or cheese production seems gradually to have been replaced over the sixteenth century by cow’s milk.

Whilst nowadays we might expect most sheep to bear at least one lamb, if not twins, each year, sixteenth century flocks were less prolific – usually averaging less than 0.5 lambs per annum. The ratio of tups to ewes varied widely – from as high as 1 ram to 7 ewes to as many as 1:39. Tups between the ages of eighteen months and 6 years were considered ideal, and ewes did not begin their maternal careers until they had been shorn twice.

Sheep are less hardy than they seem – being particularly susceptible to too much rain. The animals were doctored with the same repellent mixtures as humans had to endure. One remedy included painting young sheep and lambs with a concoction of tallow and tar.