Today, the finest wool there is is that from Merino sheep. Such had been the case from the late Middle Ages right into the Regency. But for centuries, that particular breed of sheep was closely held in Spain and could not be exported. That all began to change in the last decades of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. So much so that there was what amounted to a Merino craze across Europe and America at that time. However, unlike most of the articles which I post here, in terms of Merino sheep and Regency Britain, this must be something of a negative tale.
Where were Merino sheep during the Regency?
The breed of sheep known as the Merino originated in the province of Castille, in central Spain. It is generally believed that this special breed of sheep resulted from a series of cross-breedings between local sheep as well as sheep from North Africa and the British Isles over the course of the twelfth century. By the thirteenth century, the fine, soft wool from these remarkable sheep was highly sought-after by the upper classes throughout Europe. But most of the Merino flocks were owned either by the Church in Spain, or the Spanish nobility, and they forbade any export of this breed outside of Spain. Any attempt to take even one live Merino sheep beyond the borders of Spain carried a death sentence. Thus, Spain had a total monopoly on all Merino wool exports throughout Europe through the seventeenth century.
In the eighteenth century, small numbers of Merino sheep began to be legally exported from Spain, typically as gifts from the Spanish King to a fellow monarch. It is likely that the first small flock of Merino sheep was sent to Sweden in 1723. But the Merinos did not do well in Sweden, so there no more exports for several decades. But in 1765, King Ferdinand IV of Spain made a gift of a large flock of Merino sheep to his cousin, Prince Xavier, the Elector of Saxony. These sheep were inter-bred with the local Saxon sheep to enable them to better endure the harsher Saxon climate. These cross-bred sheep flourished and the flock steadily expanded. A small flock was sent to Hungary in 1775, and in 1786, another flock was sent to the King of Prussia, but their breeding programs do not seem to have been as successful as that in Saxony.
In the same year the Merinos were sent to Prussia, 1786, a much larger flock of over 350 Merinos was sent to King Louis XVI of France. King Louis established a Merino stud at his Royal Farm at Rambouillet. There, Merinos were bred with English sheep which were larger and had longer fiber wool to create a unique breed. Those French Merinos were physically larger and had wool that was just as soft and fine as that of their Spanish cousins. However, the French Merino wool fibers were even longer, thus producing a yarn which could be plied even more finely without loosing its strength. Though the Rambouillet farm lost its royal patron in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleon saw the value of the high quality of French Merino wool and supported the efforts at the farm when he came to power.
Sir Joseph Banks was able to acquire four Merino ewes and two rams by way of Portugal in 1787, for his own breeding program. In 1790, acting as the agent of King George III, Banks purchased forty Merinos which became the foundation of the royal flock at Kew Gardens. In 1808, the year after the French invaded Spain, King George was able to purchase an additional 2000 Merinos from Spanish breeders to increase the royal flock. However, Merino sheep like dry, temperate climates, because they need dry feet and dry coats to remain healthy. The constant damp and cold of England did not agree with Merino sheep, and even attempts to cross them with local breeds of sheep had little effect. Merino sheep are a mountain breed and their natural habitat is dry, open, mountainous range. It is in their nature to roam free. There was some attempt in Britain to raise Merinos in barns and sheds to protect them from the cool and the damp, but it was not successful. Confinement caused the animals great stress and the lack of exposure to the elements of their natural habitat significantly reduced the quality of their fleece. It was the dry cold and heat which stimulated the Merino to grow the luxuriant fleece for which they were so famous.
The privations and disruption of the government in Spain caused by the Peninsular War resulted in a steady export of Merino sheep from Spain. The Spanish grandees who had controled the breed for centuries were devastated by the war which ravaged their country, and were forced to sell off their valuables to survive, including their precious Merino sheep. Once it was known Merino sheep were available and could be freely exported from Spain, something of a "Merino craze" swept across the globe. Merino flocks were imported into several countries in Europe and flocks even reached America. An attempt had been made to breed Merino sheep in Australia in the 1790s, but it met with little success. Another attempt was made in 1810, which eventually developed into one of the significant aspects of both the Australian and New Zealand agricultural industries to this day.
Merino flocks were imported into the Canadian territories, and into several of the new states of the United States. One of the earliest states to import Merino sheep was Vermont, and flocks flourished there for more than fifty years. Flocks of Merino sheep were imported into Massachusetts, as well, but in a rather different manner. About a half a mile up the street from where I live in Boston is what is now a large wooded area known as the Arnold Arboretum. But at the turn of the nineteenth century, that property was known as Woodland Hill, the country seat of a successful Boston silversmith and mill owner, Benjamin Bussey. The term "seat" in England was typically used in reference to any large estate owned by a gentleman, but in Federal-era Massachusetts, there were only five country estates which were considered seats. All were owned by prominent men, and like Bussey, they were all deeply interested in the development of agricultural for the good of the fledgling commonwealth.
Benjamin Bussey, along with these other large estate owners, and a number of other prominent farmers with large holdings, were members of an agricultural society which held regular meetings in eastern Massachusetts, typically taking turns hosting the meetings at their homes. This was an altruistic society dedicated to the improvement of all forms of agriculture in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A particularly difficult task in a state with poor quality, rocky soil. Though the soil of the area was not good for growing crops, the members of the society knew that it produced plentiful grass. Grass which would make excellent fodder for sheep. Many Massachusetts farmers already raised a few sheep, for both mutton and wool, but the wool was of mediocre quality and was mostly consumed by the farmers’ families. But the more well-read members of the society were aware of the high quality wool produced by Merino sheep, and from about 1810 to 1812, the society paid for the importation of a number of Merino sheep, both rams and ewes, into Massachusetts. Farmers who were interested in raising Merino sheep strains were allowed to breed their sheep with the purebred Merinos at no cost, and could keep the offspring for their own flocks. Thus, the quality of sheep would be improved, even for farmers who could not afford to purchase their own breeding stock.
It would appear that there were similar agricultural societies in various counties throughout Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. Some of them also imported Marino sheep, especially in the northern counties and in Scotland. Unfortunately, as noted above, the climate of the British Isles did not agree with purebred Merino sheep which were bred for their fleece, and these breeding programs were not a success. However, there is also a strain of Merino sheep which is bred for their mutton. Their fleece is of poor quality, but they did fairly well in Britain for a few decades though they are no longer bred in the United Kingdom today.
Just before and during the Regency, large numbers of Merino sheep were exported from Spain into several European countries, including Great Britain. Flocks were also making their way to Australia, South Africa, Canada and the United States. Though the Merino breed did well in most of those locations, they did not do well in Great Britain. Though there were some small flocks of Merinos in various counties across Great Britain, no matter how hard their breeders worked, fleece-bearing Merino sheep did not flourish. Merino wool never became a cash crop for British farmers. However, imported Merino wool was well-known and much appreciated by the members of the British upper classes who could afford it. Cloth woven from Merino wool was fine, smooth and soft, yet still had all of the best properties of wool, being easy to dye, draped nicely and was very comfortable to wear. Though there were few Merino sheep in Britain during the Regency, there were many, many ells of Merino wool cloth on offer at drapers, tailors and dressmakers all over the country.
Due to the climate of the British Isles, the successful breeding of Merino sheep anywhere in England or Scotland is not a path to riches for any characters in a Regency novel set in Great Britain. However, an attempt to breed and raise fleece-bearing Merino sheep in England or Scotland might be an historically accurate method by which a Regency author can beggar one of their characters, should that be required for the story. A particularly snobbish, fashion- and status-conscious young woman might make a scene at the dressmaker’s shop when she comes to pick up her new cloak or pelisse and discovers it is not made of Merino wool. Perhaps a young husband, though not wealthy, splurges on a fine Merino wool garment for his beloved wife as a gift for a special occasion. Though few people are aware of the high quality of Merino wool today, those living during the Regency would have been well aware of its special properties. Even though Merino sheep could not be successfully raised in Britain, neither they, nor their silky fine wool, need be ignored by Regency authors.