I appreciate the kind email about my few blog posts and wanted to try and answer in this post some of the many question regarding: where have all the sheep gone and why? To be as quick and brief as possible:
At their high point sheep (not necessarily lambs even) where used for wartime food supplies for the US and Canadian soldiers during WWII. The military was also a huge buyer of wool which helped keep the value of sheep high. After the war these sources of revenue disappeared along with the demand. Massive culls of the range flocks occurred as a result. Another unfortunate (for the long term health of the sheep industry) thing occurred during the war especially with Canadian soldiers overseas; they were fed mutton on a regular basis. North America is one of the few places in the world where we do not enjoy mutton at least as much as we enjoy lamb. It is much stronger flavored, the meat is less tender the fat is very different and it requires longer slower cooking which in a war time military kitchen it likely did not receive. It is definitely an acquired taste. Many of these solders developed an extreme dislike for what they believed was lamb. Many of these same soldiers had never actually eaten lamb so they had nothing to compare the experience to. Post war lamb sales declined and remained low for decades as a result.
More recent declines in the large range flocks have resulted from less Government owned range land being leased out for grazing making lamb much more expensive to produce. An additional effect of the loss of these massive grazing areas has been an enormous increase in parasite issues leading to loss of productivity and death which again increases the costs of production. To a lesser extent sheep disease issues also increased where sheep graze over the same land more frequently. Spiraling downward, because of the relative small numbers of sheep in North America they are now considered a “minor species” resulting in fewer drug companies being willing to pay the extremely high costs of having drugs, vaccines and de-wormers approved for use in sheep (especially in Canada). There are now very, very few sheep vets. Normally sheep do not get more than a few hours attention during the entire time vets are in school and then only those studying in “large animal” programs. Way less time than horses and virtually nothing compared to the major commodity food animals such as pigs, cattle, dairy, and poultry. As a result people are forced in most cases to be their own “vets” and unless they have the time and interest to do a lot of studying, reading, and attending seminars (very few in BC) to train yourself it’s pretty disheartening to say the least to stand by and watch animals who don’t thrive and often die.
Contrary to what many people think, sheep don’t do well just eating just any old grass, especially the kind of grass we have here on Vancouver Island (think romaine/iceberg/water filled lettuce). This grass is much different than the remaining grazing lease lands in the interior where grass might not as be plentiful or “lush appearing” but it contains way more nutrition. So not only did sheep lose their clean, renewable grazing they lost the nutrition it provided. When sheep are on grass in many areas such as here they must also have additional sources of nutrition provided for them to thrive, reproduce and grow fast enough to produce the type lamb we prefer.
There are many other things that have lead to the decline of sheep numbers in North American but the last ones I am going to mention here are: increasing costs for, land, equipment and "inputs" (feed and related things needed for production of sheep), predator pressure from coyotes (none on Vancouver Island!!), bear, cougar, domestic dog, and birds of prey etc, the increase in government regulations and decrease in it's support in numerous ways related to livestock production (not the least of which is extension services to support beginning farmers) and on a local level especially the decline in agricultural infrastructure in general and that pertaining to animal production in particular; not the least of which is the lack of trained sheep vets. This lack of production centered knowledge is probably the one most important things that is causing the continued decline in sheep production today. As one person who tried but gave up with sheep put it "they start trying to die the day they are born", or to put it differently "they aren't as easy to raise as you might think".