Different countries have animals that are important to their culture, economics, and ecosystems. For example, in California we have a ridiculous number of cows. Yes, they may stink, but Americans love their beef and milk. I’ve chosen to focus not on the exotic plants or animals of the United Kingdom, but what some may consider “average” or “everyday”, because those are often the animals that are most important to that country’s lifestyle.
Last weekend I went on an adventure to Wales, also located in the United Kingdom. The UK consists of four countries: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England. But just like in the United States, you don’t have to go through border control when crossing from England into Wales.
I had the opportunity to hike Mount Snowden, the tallest mountain in Wales, and you know what I saw everywhere? Sheep!!! Sheep in the woods, sheep on the mountain, sheep somehow climbing on the sides of cliffs. Yes, they’re a farm animal, but they are incredibly important to Wales and the Welsh culture.
We are all quite familiar with sheep: a four-legged mammal covered in wool (think super-packed, super-curly fur), though their face and legs aren’t covered in wool. The males have horns, while the females don’t.
In Wales the most popular breeds include the Badger Face Welsh Mountain Sheep, Balwen Welsh Mountain Sheep, and the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep. Unlike sheep in America, Welsh Mountain Sheep typically have undocked tails. Docking a tail is the process of removing an animal’s tail, which is typically done to sheep in America. This means that Welsh Mountain Sheep actually have long, wooly tails.
I was astounded by how many sheep I saw. At first, they had so much wooly fur I wanted to pet them, but then they became a part of the landscape. Did you know there are ten million sheep in Wales? The Welsh sheep farming industry was worth 270 million pounds in 2011; that’s $414 million!!!
Those sheep hanging out on the hills and in the woods aren’t wild, but owned by a farmer. In fact, the entire hiking path was designed with sheep in mind. We passed many “kissing gates”, which are gates that only allow one person to pass through at a time and require you to zigzag through. These are so the sheep stay in each farmer’s designated land. There are also more familiar styles of gates and fences. So even though Mount Snowdon is a huge tourist destination (there’s even a train that can take you to the top if you don’t feel like hiking it), the tourist industry is impacted by the importance of sheep farming.
The sheep forage, or search for food, in order to survive. They’ll wander around through the hills all day grazing on grass and plants to feed themselves, and lay around for the rest of the day. Because they graze so much, farmers are forced to rotate the sheep through different fields to ensure they don’t overgraze, or completely destroy, all the plants.
Though the sheep have natural predators, two of the greatest threats to sheep are the human economy and weather conditions. Sheep farming accounts for 80% of agriculture in Wales. Note that sheep are not only raised for their wool, but also for meat (lamb in the grocery store comes from sheep). Falling lamb prices make sheep farming less profitable. If this continues, that could result in a decrease in the number of sheep in Wales. In addition, the European Union (EU) gives half a billion euros a year to support Welsh sheep farming. Recently there has been talk about the United Kingdom possibly leaving the EU, which would mean a huge decrease in monetary support for sheep farmers. Also, weather conditions from 2001 – 2009 killed 1 million sheep. That means 1 million less sheep that can have babies, affecting the future population of sheep.