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Three bags full - the black sheep of Deccan

The tough Deccani sheep have an unusually thick fleece to survive the extreme conditions of the Deccan Plateau (Kamal Kishore)
The tough Deccani sheep have an unusually thick fleece to survive the extreme conditions of the Deccan Plateau
Kamal Kishore

Once every three or four years in the semi-arid Deccan Plateau of southern India there is rain, and villagers hurry to sow crops. But in the intervening years they rely entirely on the tough Deccani sheep. Well-adapted to life in one of the country's most extreme environments, they provide meat, manure and thick black wool.

"The survival of the whole community depends on these animals - that's the bottom line," says Kamal Kishore of the Deccani Sheep Network Project. The unusually thick fleece of the Deccani sheep - more like coarse hair - is the key to their ability to tolerate semi-arid India. While summer temperatures on the Deccan Plateau soar to a sweltering 40 degrees Celsius, in winter they often fall to near-freezing. "They are strange animals because the wool is only on their back; there is nothing on their belly. It's like they're wearing a woolly coat," laughs Kishore. Traditionally used for making multipurpose blankets that double-up as throws or shawls, the wool also has important cultural value. "It has a very high place in village life," he continues. "You could not get your daughter married without giving her a black wool blanket."

Changing tastes

In the 1920s the British army in India began purchasing the blankets for use in barracks, an arrangement that continued with the Indian army into the 1980s. The only requirements were that the wool was black, and that the blankets were cheap and well-made. But changing preferences in the mid-80s led to the army sourcing finer, softer wool from abroad. Almost overnight the apparently stable market for Deccani wool vanished.

The future of Decanni sheep depends on traditional village weavers (Kamal Kishore)
The future of Decanni sheep depends on traditional village weavers
Kamal Kishore

Acknowledging growing world demand for high-quality fibre, some scientists and development agencies set about introducing exotic merino sheep to the region, renowned for their finer, softer, premium wool. Animals were imported from all over the world - Australia, the UK, Russia, the US and South Africa, but the Deccani plateau proved too extreme and the animals did not survive. "They failed miserably," laments Kishore. "People didn't understand that thick wool is an essential requirement for the sheep in this region."

Around the same time India's eating habits were changing and meat consumption was becoming increasingly popular in the cities. With a change of direction, many livelihood projects now encouraged the crossbreeding of Deccani sheep with non-woolly, faster-growing breeds to produce more meat. But these new animals also failed to cope with the harsh environment and scarcity of feed. "It was as if they were trying to re-invent the wheel," recalls a despairing Kishore.

Where there's wool there's a way

The solution was found much closer to home by focusing on the traditional skills of local weavers. "Weaving is the craft-form here," explains Kishore. "Within the 40-50km area we work in, there are twelve different types of weaving systems, which is quite phenomenal. Normally you would only have one system in an area of this size." With the help of Indian NGO (Ahramik Abhivrudhi Sangh) and CALPI - a Swiss livestock development programme, the weavers formed self-help groups to sort, grade, spin and weave the best ten per cent of the wool, producing high-quality bags, clothes and home furnishings. They then established a producers' federation, Shamrik Kala, to sell the products.

Village weavers use the best wool for producing quality products. (Kamal Kishore)
Village weavers use the best wool for producing quality products.
Kamal Kishore

The range is proving popular with consumers in Europe, Japan - and even in Australia, a fact that Kishore finds amusing. "Australia is the biggest wool-producing country in the world, but nobody there has seen a black sheep!" he laughs. At a recent export show, Kishore says his marketing company Mitan Handicrafts, which represents Shamrik Kala, was the only producer out of some 4,000 in attendance to receive substantial orders. This is one of the reasons he is confident that demand will remain strong, despite tough economic conditions in some developed countries. "This market is recession-proof," he says. "We are definitely not affected."

One remaining challenge is to find a use for the 90 per cent of the wool that is left over. The Deccani Sheep Network Project is trying to attract funding for research into new industrial uses - as home insulation, for example, as well as some "wilder ideas" such as the use of wool as a possible fuel source. Kishore believes this kind of diversification is essential as demand for finer wool and synthetic fibres continues to rise.

Date published: May 2009


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This article give brief idea about deccani wool use, but we ... (posted by: Girish Kherdekar)


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