Where black sheep are celebrated

I went on a field trip to study pastoralism in the Deccan region of India, at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.  Here people’s survival depends on their black Deccani sheep, much as our pre-inclosure communities depended for their survival on grazing their animals on the commons.

The Deccani sheep are medium sized with coarse black or brown wool, ideally suited to the extreme temperatures of the region and for long-distance migration (from August to February) in search of food and water.

Deccani sheep

The breed is important for its wool, meat and manure.  The shepherds, during their migration, enter into agreements with farmers who pen the sheep on their land so as to win the dung to enrich the soil, giving the shepherds in return rice, dal and pocket money.

Preparing the wool

The women sort, card and spin the wool while the men weave it into tough blankets and mats.

We visited Saipet, inhabited by 100 families.  The villagers welcomed us and serenaded us with music, song and dance as we walked into the centre of the village.

Arrival at Saipet

We removed our shoes and sat on the Deccani wool blanket.  The village elders spoke to us, some through interpreters.

We were told of the competition from imported ‘shoddy’ wool, cheap soft merino wool from Australia.  The soldiers used Deccani blankets, but no longer.  The breed is being crossed with other non-wool, primarily meat-sheep breeds, and the state animal husbandry departments have subsidised the shepherds to replace their Deccani breed with heavier, non-wool breeds.  We were told: ‘The government is pushing us to the hairy mutton variety’.  These mixed breeds are more susceptible to disease and less able to cope with the long migration.  The state is encouraging the shepherds to use antibiotics rather than natural cures for illness.

Worst of all the grazing ground is being enclosed: ‘Never before in the culture of the region have we had fences.’  The sheep survive by grazing on common property—forests and harvested agricultural fields.  As soon as the crop is harvested, the land becomes common grazing.  The Indian government is liberating the land regimes; this has led to huge land grabs.

The white fence indicates a land grab

And the state is favouring an industrialised land-use of non-food crops.  Irrigation and dams have placed restrictions on migration.  Increased private irrigation, such as bore wells, has meant that dry-land crops have been replaced by paddy and sugarcane, so that land that used to be freed for grazing after six months is now cropped two or three times a year instead.  A new dam had been built near Saipet and much of the grazing land was submerged.

With this the culture of shepherding is declining; the younger women are not learning the technique of spinning wool.  The old ways may be forgotten.

However, Anthra, a group which works with the landless to protect indigenous knowledge, has helped the shepherds form community groups (sanghams), open to all, which meet regularly to share their concerns and provide a voice for the communities, working to improve their livelihoods and restore their control and autonomy over their farming systems.

It made me think of our own Foundation for Common Land here in Britain, which is working to give a voice to commoners.  There must be a great deal which we can learn from each other.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in India, India trip, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Where black sheep are celebrated

  1. Carl Walters says:

    There is no doubt we have much to learn from each other and, although we are not losing our common land in the UK to the same extent, we ARE losing our shepherding culture. There are other similarities, not least the appearance of Cheviot sheep on commons where once Swaledales, Rough Fell and Herdwicks roamed. Hopefully, organisations like the Foundation for Common land will help connect these communities around the globe so that they can support each other.

  2. In this ecosystem, where agro-pastoralism , commons wants more security rights to the land, of course as well as in other places in the world. Some time you may think how these cultures impact to each others in many ways. One way for pastoral commons is to integrate with existing cropland regime, so they wants to secure the land, with exclusion by some physical measures, but any way in long run they may not like it, so much, depending on how it impact to their livelihood.

  3. Dear Kate

    We came across the writeup of your experiences after you visited our area of work to meet the pastoralists and the Deccani Sheep!

    Hope we can continue to build the movement to free the commons from these enclosures-and we can keep in touch!

    best wishes from
    all of us here at

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