Into the woods: Merino mania

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If you spend time in the woods, chances are you’ll stumble upon an old cellar hole, stone wall or agricultural implement rusting among the trees. These cultural artifacts are striking and speak to the strange and fascinating history of European settlement in Vermont, which is intertwined with the history of our forests. The history of how this came to be is a story of settlement, war and mania.

When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, the ensuing chaos allowed some of Spain’s prized merino sheep to be exported. William Jarvis, the U.S. consul to Portugal, acquired some of these sheep and introduced a large flock of them onto his Weathersfield, Vt. farm in 1811.

Wool from merino sheep was much higher in quality, and produced more abundantly, than wool from other breeds. U.S. export markets bbegan to boom, and tariffs prevented the importation of wool into the county. This initiated “merino mania” throughout New England in the decade following Jarvis’ introduction, when merino wool sold for up to $2 a pound ($.37 a pound was the going rate for wool from other breeds.) While some areas of Vermont were already cleared for agriculture and settlement, clearing for sheep pasture during this time caused the amount of open land to reach about 80 percent of the state by the mid-1800s. By 1837, there were up to 1.7 million sheep in Vermont and around 4 million in New England.

The wool industry declined in the 1840s, when prices dropped due to a glut of supply, wool production picked up in the west and overseas and importation tariffs were lifted.  Many farms switched to  production of dairy and other commodities and abandoned some of their pastureland. These pastures began to revert to forest, gradually increasing the amount of forested land over the following century.  The final blow to numerous farmers came with the Great Depression, when many who held on through the boom and bust of the 1800s finally gave up. From the 1930s-’60s, huge areas of farmland were abandoned. Many of Vermont’s forests originated from pastures “let go” during this time.

Fields are not ideal seedbeds for most of our native tree species, so these pastures tended to be colonized by white pine, a species that does well in these conditions. The resulting “field pine” stands are often poor in quality, with a pair of invasive pathogens, white pine weevil and blister rust, contributing to their woes. Even once the pine has died or been removed, the effect of the clearing lingers; in many cases, it takes at least two generations of trees before these areas begin to regain the appearance of native forest, though thoughtful, active forest management can expedite this process somewhat.

These field-origin forests are generally relatively poor wildlife habitat, lacking structural diversity (trees of different ages and heights) and species diversity (many different tree species). They also often lack downed trees and woody material on the forest floor, which is important for wildlife habitat, erosion prevention, carbon storage and soil building. They are also prime habitat for invasive exotic plant species. These shortcomings can be addressed with high-quality forest management, but they still amount to significant problems across the landscape, due to the ubiquitous nature of these field-origin stands.

The next time you take a walk in the woods, see if you can imagine what it was like in the 1830s, when millions of merino sheep grazed these rocky hills. The complicated relationship between humans and forests continues to evolve, but we are blessed with the gift of hindsight, which allows us to examine our past management practices critically. Hopefully we can use this knowledge to not only enrich our time in the woods, but to make better management decisions in the future.

For those who are interested in learning more, check out “Reading the Forest Landscape” by Tom Wessels, a Vermont naturalist and author.

Ethan Tapper is the Chittenden County forester. He can be reached at his office at 111 West St. in Essex Jct., at 585-9099 or at ethan.tapper@vermont.gov.