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Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

sheepgraduating

 

An Adult Muskox (Ovibos moschatu)

It’s time to consider the mighty muskox (Ovibos moschatu) a survivor from the ice age.  Possessing powerful curved horns, which hang down like side bangs from a helmet-like skullcap, muskoxen are actually more closely related to sheep and goats than to cattle and oxen (although all of the above are members of the Bovidae family).  Adult muskoxen weigh from 180 to 400 kg (400 to 900 pounds) but they look much larger on account of their thick coats and large heads.  Once muskoxen proliferated throughout the northern hemisphere alongside wooly mammoths and aurochs, but hunting and habitat loss caused them to retreat further and further into the remotest parts of the north until the end of the nineteenth century when the animals could only be found in the unpopulated wilderness and empty islands of northern Canada and deep in the arctic fastnesses of Greenland.

In these remote locations tiny herds of one to two dozen muskoxen still subsist on grasses, willows, lichens and moss while contending with terrible arctic predators and fearsome cold. Fortunately the muskox is provisioned with fearsome horns and doughty neighbors to fend off polar bears and wolves.  The herd is capable of assembling in a ring formation with horns outward to stand off wolves and ice bears (although such a strategy works less well against humans with our projectile weapons). To fight the cold, the muskoxen have fat reserves and one of the most remarkable insulating coats in the animal world.

Go ahead, run in and bite the little muskox.

A muskox’s coat is divided into two layers: a long stringy layer of coarse outer wool and an inner layer of soft warm underwool called qiviut (this Inuit word now primarily denotes muskox wool but it was once also used to refer to similarly soft warm inner down of arctic birds).  Qiviut is one of the world’s premier luxury fibers: it is allegedly 8 times more effective at insulation than sheep’s wool and yet is softer than cashmere. Unlike sheep’s wool, it does not shrink in water at any temperature.

Raw qiviut and spinning equipment

Every season a musk ox sheds his or her down coating and qiviut can be obtained in the wild by plucking cast-off tufts from thorns and snares.  Unfortunately such qiviut is of lower quality than that obtained by combing/plucking the hides of hunted muskox—so demand for qiviut was driving down musk ox numbers. Fortunately, a gentler solution is becoming more prevalent—muskox farming.

Qiviut yarn

Last month I devoted a week to writing about the domestication of various plants and animals (the gist of those writings can be found here, in a post about a strange feral Renaissance painting).  Of course many animals have escaped the yoke of domestication, and the muskox was one such creature—until recently.  Ranchers have made use of hard-won knowledge of large animals and the muskoxen’s herd instincts to create muskox farms.  A modified bison crush is used to immobilize the live muskoxen while they are combed and plucked (I desperately wanted a photo but there was nothing online—so you’ll have to make do with the baby muskox pictures below).

Aw! The baby muskox is too cute.

Thanks to reintroduction programs, there are now muskox herds in Siberia, Sweden, Norway, and Alaska as well as in Canada and Greenland.  Farm herds are further swelling the numbers of these magnificent beasties.

Here's one playing with a rubber ball.

From time to time, Ferrebeeekeeper indulges in a theme week.  Last Halloween featured Greek Monster Week, which highlighted the mythical spawn of Echidna, the great serpent mother of classical mythology.  Other theme weeks have included Tree Week and Small Furry Animals Week (which described the groundhog, the pika, the hyrax, the rabbit, and the wombat).  In order to combat malaise in the world construction markets, Ferrebeekeeper now presents Builders Week, five posts dedicated to great builders and the edifices they have created.  To start off the week, this post is dedicated to the beaver, the most accomplished and tireless builder of the animal kingdom–save perhaps for corals, termites, and humans.  Not only is the busy building beaver a keystone species to ecosystems around the Northern hemisphere, the furry rodent holds a key place in American history.

Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) photo by zooadmin

There are two species of beaver, the North American beaver (Castor Canadensis) and the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber).  Although similar in appearance and habit, the two species are not genetically compatible and, when mated, do not produce living offspring.  Like the other giant rodents (capybara, nutrias, etc) beavers are semi aquatic and spend nearly as much time in the water as on land. In order to get around on land and water, beavers have webbed clawed feet and a flat, hairless paddle-like tail.  Their ears and nostrils clamp shut under water and a special membrane snaps over their eyes.  In order to keep warm in harsh northern winters, beavers have a layer of subcutaneous fat as well as a dense coat which they waterproof with oily castoreum (produced from a scent gland).  To round out their special features, beavers possess formidable upper and lower incisors with which they gnaw down trees. Adult beavers can weigh up to 30 Kilograms (about 60 pounds) and attain lengths of 1.3 meters (about 4 feet).

North American Beaver (Castor canadensis)

Beavers are intelligent animals which form close family bonds. According to the website Beaver: Wetlands and Wildlife:

Wildlife rehabilitators find beavers to be gentle, reasoning beings who enjoy playing practical jokes…. Beavers mate for life during their third year. Both parents care for the kits (usually one to four) that are born in the spring. The youngsters normally stay with their parents for two years, and the yearlings become babysitters for the new litter. After weaning, their favorite foods include water lily tubers, apples and the leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen and other fast-growing trees.

Above all, the beaver is a masterful builder capable of cutting down large trees and moving them into place to serve as the foundation of a dam.  Reinforced with mud, and “planted” with living green shoots (which grow into the structures and thus add stability), beaver dams curve backwards against the current and are capable of holding immense volumes of water. Not only do beavers fell trees and create timberworks and earthworks, the creatures also excavate canals to provide a quick escape into the artificial lakes produced by their dam building. Within these lakes the beavers build lodges as escape shelters and winter homes.

Cross-section of a Beaver Lodge (DEA Picture Library/De Agostini Picture Library)

Such lodges can only be entered through hidden underwater entrances.  Crafted in sprawling mounds from logs, branches, and mud, the structures contain rooms for dying off and rooms for habitation.  Before winter the beavers coat their lodges with mud which freezes into a hard coat which makes the structures impervious to bears and wolverines. Beavers harvest tender shoots from their favorite softwoods and embed them deep in the mud of the coldest deepest part of their lakes.  In winter when the top of the lake is frozen, the animals can dive down and retrieve food from their underwater refrigerator.

The Largest Known Beaver Dam Photographed from Space

Beavers are ambitious in their work. To date the largest beaver dam discovered was over 850 meters in length (2,790 feet)–more than twice the width of Hoover Dam. Located in the forests of Alberta in Canada the huge dam was spotted from space via Google Earth.

The flooded lands formed by these dams provide a habitat for waterfowl, turtles, frogs, and other aquatic creatures (as well as protected nurseries for salmon fry). Additionally the dams alleviate flooding, allow the water table to recharge, and act as filters which soak up nitrogen and chemicals.  Some writers have (poetically?) described beaver dams and related lakes as the kidneys of a watershed. Since beaver dams are depositional environments, they silt up into rich bottom land when abandoned by their builders. This process is vital to forests and rivers in North America and Europe, where soft quick growing trees have evolved to deal with beavers’ appetite and industry. However beavers have caused disastrous flooding and environmental mayhem when furriers introduced them to areas (like Tierra del Fuega) where trees do not coppice.

The Fur Trade

Furriers have a long dark history with the beaver. Eurasian beavers were over-harvested to the point of near extinction by medieval trappers for their lustrous coats.  When the New World was being conquered and colonized by European nations, the valuable fur of North American beavers was one of the first economic incentives for exploration.  Trappers, traders, and runners-of-the-woods traveled deep into North America for the pelts of all manner of creatures: but they sought beaver hides foremost.  The dense fur was ideal for making the fashionable flamboyant hats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (additionally beavers were classified as fish by the Catholic church and their flesh had special allure for hungry devout French trappers during Friday fasts). Competition between French and English fur traders for the pelts from the territory between the Alleghany Mountains and the Mississippi combined with long brewing national conflict to start the French and Indian War which in turn determined the course of civilization in North America.

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