The Norwegian Sheep and Goat History


The history of sheep and goat husbandry in Norway concerns the distribution, circumstances and socio-economic impact of these animals from the earliest times until the present, and also includes some aspects relevant to the rest of the world.

This book has been written for the 50th anniversary of the Norwegian Association of Sheep and Goat Breeders in 1997. Much of the material therefore deals with the origin and development of the Association (parts II and III), although this cannot be separated from the Norwegian society in general.

It was also my intention to give ample space for the ancient history of sheep and goats. The material was based on statistical material from Norway and abroad, together with other data concerning trends and development in general. Consequently, the work of other institutions supporting the profession is also mentioned, and I have tried to present the material in such a way that it puts incidents of topical interest in relation to the general development of society. These intentions have been fulfilled within the framework of deadhines and available source material. Apart from a relatively comprehensive introduction, the book consists of four main parts, with the following contents:  

Part I. The Ancient History.  

This is a description of some archeological finds which can, together with pollen analysis and other related sciences, tell us something about the first traces of sheep and goats in Norway, some 5000 years ago.

This was about 1000 years before the famous agreement of Jacob and Laban in ancient Mesopotamia on piebald goats and black sheep. The oldest finds indicate a form of nomadic lifestyle including hunting, fishing and cattle breeding. Later, when people began living in permanent settlements, the well-known moor areas along the Atlantic coasts of Norway and Europe, a result of this combination of clearing, heather burning and cattle grazing, developed.

Written records in Norway date back no longer than about 800—1000 years A.D.. Most important here is the old Norse saga literature, poetry, lays and the oldest legislation. There are also records from personalities such as King Alfred the Great of England and the wise Adam von Bremen in Germany. According to Herr Adam, Norway was the least fertile of all countries. Thus, people turned to cattle rearing in the wilderness, and began to wear clothes made from the wool they could get from their animals. Wool from the sheep was invaluable.

The famous Gulating laws from before 930 (which were also translated into English) were revised around 1020 and again in 1163. These, together with various other sources, supply us with information about a special kind of home-made woollen goods called frieze, which actually formed the most stable currency for centuries. 30 feet (15 ‘alner’, i ‘alen’ = two feet; an old Norwegian measure of length) of frieze had a value equal to a cow, or 1/3 mark (one mark = 215 grams) of pure silver.

Another essential speciality was the production of sails for almost any kind of ship. It was the wool from the North European short-tailed sheep which proved to be most suitable for this purpose. The long, coarse and strong guard hairs were separated from the rest of the fleece by hand and spun into a hard warp, whereas the fine bottom wool was spun in the opposite direction and used as weft. Impregnation and fulling were also included in the manufacturing process. Analysis of old sail remnants and meticulous reconstruction has shown that sails such as these had qualities which even experts did not anticipate.

The goat has its own place in the old history, with interesting features from Norse as well as ancient Greek mythology. The goat and its products were a widely used means of payment far into the l9th century. For example, the Viking king Olav Trygvasson was sold as a three-year-old boy for a magnificent billy in Estonia. In the l6th and llth centuries a fine billy coat had the same value as half a cowhide, while the goat tallow had almost the same value as butter. A well-known Norwegian naturalist wrote in 1762 that a productive goat could yield as much milk as a bad cow.  

From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep almost tripled. The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike. A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs. By moving these corrals systematically every day there was the additional effect of fertilising the hayfields and mountain pastures by means of the dung from the animals. Chemical fertiliser did not exist, and there were no mechanical remedies for breaking up the extremely rocky soil.

Not until the beginning of the 2Oth century, especially after Norway’s final liberation from Sweden in 1905, did the work to promote professional sheep and goat husbandry speed up. Scientific literature and minor research and registration projects steadily gained a stronger position, until World War 2 put a 5-year end to such enterprises.  

Part II. The Association’s Main Activities, Professional Institutions and the Authorities.

This part mainly covers the Association’s activities from its foundation in 1947 until the 1997 anniversary. The Association’s periodical was established as early as in 1948 and has since been published regularly, at present with 6 issues and 380 pages a year.

Some special conditions which have always influenced sheep and goat breeding in Norway are the great distances relative to urban areas and population density, very limited areas of arable land and vast, but poor grazing areas. These conditions have given rise to a scheme for ‘organised grazing’ currently covering the whole country and involving about 70 % of the total stock.

Another interesting theme was the establishment of an organised procedure for wool collection. In the 1950s and 60s this was a vital effort in order to achieve a rational and just system for wool classification and payment according to quality, while at the same time reducing the freight charges for the individual suppliers to an acceptable level. The wool collection was organised by local groups on a voluntary basis for modest compensation. Today the wool business is based more on free competition, but the wool collection system is still in operation. The involvement of institutions such as the Norwegian University of Agriculture, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Norwegian College of Veterinary Medicine and the Biological Institute, University of Oslo are also mentioned in this part.  

Part III. From Year to Year.

This is a chronological summary of the Association’s actual history. Special activities such as those described in Part II are placed in their natural order here. Incidental episodes such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with its subsequent radioactive fallout in some grazing areas, episodes concerning the general policy of the Association and government restriction of former beneficial rights of use are duly mentioned. In the last period, disease problems are given special interest, not least because of the increased exposure hazard which is a result of increased international exchange and livestock trade.  

Part IV. Systematic Supplement.

This comprises a selection of statistical data and other statements of partly public interest. There is, among other things, a relatively comprehensive account of the origin of the Norwegian sheep breeds. The most interesting point here in a historical context is the Norwegian Spælsau (the word spæl means ‘short tail’) which, together with the Icelandic sheep, descends from the old North European breed. In 1912, only some scattered remnants of the Spælsau breed existed. Today, this breed represents about 25 % of the total sheep population in Norway.

Remnants of the old Norwegian Feral Sheep also still exist, mainly on a few islands on the western coast, and it is assumed that the total number amounts to about 8000 head.  

The other ‘Norwegian’ breeds are hybrid and products of selection between local breeds and a number of foreign breeds, mainly Scottish and English. So far, the goat has been very little influenced by foreign breeds.  

The last chapter of Part IV contains statistics about extent and production concerning sheep and goat breeding both in Norway and on a world basis.

This photo, from early last century, and properly the most poetic in the book, shows how seaweed was collected partly as a fertiliser, partly as feed. The photo is from Lista, Vest-Agder, southernmost in Norway.
(Text by Sheep-Isle)