Sheep and wool in the 20th century

While sheep and wool have been a cornerstone of Dartmoor’s identity for centuries, the 20th century brought about significant changes to this enduring tradition.

Both World Wars impacted Dartmoor’s sheep industry. While wool production rose in demand for military uniforms, the conflicts also caused manpower shortages, straining the traditional farming way of life.

Following World War II, the market shifted dramatically. Synthetic fibres emerged as a cheaper alternative, significantly impacting the demand for Dartmoor wool.

In 1936 the Dartmoor Sheep Breeders Association was established and whose efforts focused on maintaining the bloodline of the native Dartmoor sheep and promoting their unique characteristics.

Faced with a declining market, Dartmoor farmers began exploring diversification. High-quality fleeces suitable for hand-spinning and niche clothing lines emerged as new avenues.

Additionally, sustainable land management practices gained importance, ensuring the delicate balance of the moorland ecosystem was maintained alongside sheep farming.

Over time sheep numbers on Dartmoor have shrunk compared to their peak. However, their presence remains vital as grazing by sheep helps control the growth of scrub and ferns, preserving the open character of the moors. Furthermore, sheep grazing creates a diverse habitat that benefits plant and insect species.

As for the future of sheep farming on Dartmoor, it likely involves environmentally friendly grazing methods that maintain ecological balance. High-quality wool products and exploration of specialized markets like organic and locally-sourced textiles hold potential. Initiatives like guided walks and farm stays can raise awareness about the cultural significance of sheep and the challenges faced by modern Dartmoor farmers.

Through adaptation, breed preservation efforts, and a growing focus on sustainability, sheep continue to play a crucial role in the ecological and cultural fabric of this unique landscape. Their presence serves as a reminder of the deep connection between Dartmoor’s past, present, and future.