More sheep than people in Ireland

Scottish Blackface sheep in the cliffs of Donegal. Photos by David Lansing.

It’s a joke as we’re driving around Ireland: Someone leans back, closes their eyes, and says, “Wake me if you see any sheep.”

It’s impossible to go five minutes without coming across a flock of sheep almost anywhere you go. There are sheep on the hills and in pastures and often on the road. In fact, there are something like 4.7 million sheep in Ireland. Compared to 4.6 million people. In other words, more than a sheep per person (by the way, there are 34.5 million Americans of Irish heritage, which means there are 7 times more Irish-Americans than the population of Ireland itself).

Someone told us that there were 27 different breeds of sheep in Ireland. The most common is the Scottish Blackface. Sheep are not indigenous to Ireland. The Scottish Blackface, like several other breeds, was brought to Ireland in the mid-19th century following the Great Famine. Not to feed the Irish, mind you.

The British and Scottish landlords brought the sheep over as a way to make up for lost revenue during the famine. What they’d do is either force their starving Irish tenants to move or be evicted from their large tracts of lands so that they could graze their sheep.

Not everyone took this lying down, of course. In December 1856, around forty Irish tenant farmers in the Donegal area raided the house of a Scottish shepherd and ordered him to leave the country. Raids followed. Sheep were killed (or went missing, probably in some farmer’s pot). This was known as the Gweedore Sheep War after the area in Donegal where it took place. Of course, in the end, the Irish lost. By the following summer, numerous arrests had been made, new taxes put in place, the police presence expanded. By summer 1858 the Gweedore Sheep War was effectively over. The Irish farmers had been booted out; the sheep remained.

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  1. Allan’s avatar

    What’s hell is driving in the fog. You can’t see the effing sheep!

  2. Barbara Stoner’s avatar

    In England, there were sheep on the coast, sheep at Stonehenge, at Avebury, visible from Glastonbury Tor, on the hills of the Lake District, dotting the view from Hadrian’s Wall. Spent a day driving a part of the Scottish highlands on what was, essentially, a sheep track. In the Highlands, however, you can’t help but notice the lack of cottages, farms, villages – and the plethora of sheep. So while you’re enjoying the amazing views, surrounded by a flock or two, you remember the Enclosures, which were not confined to Ireland.

  3. Teresa’s avatar

    My parents are Irish so it made me chuckle! I think the percentage of sheep to people might be higher in NZ. It’s been a while since I was there but I remember being very surprised.

  4. Christelle’s avatar

    Good morning, very nice and useful blog to improve my English =).
    I am a French flâneuse (haha) and I used to live in Ireland and Scotland as well. I’ve been looking for statistics about sheep in Ireland. Are you sure, there are more sheep than people? I would be curious to know where your statistics come from.
    According to the Department of Agriculture, at this end of 2012 there were 3,58 million sheep (34,048 flocks) for 4,6 million inhabitants.
    Here is the link (a bit long sorry) :

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