31st October 2023

Book in Focus
A History of Livestock and Wildlife

Animal Wealth and Human Usage

By Eric Jones

This book makes the case that the joint process of seizing wild animal resources and developing livestock husbandry was the booster rocket that changed the world’s growth equation.  In doing so, it fills in gaps and remedies distortions in the literature.  General history is biased, diverting attention away from the true sources of wealth.  As J. H. Fabre said, it tells one who the king’s bastards were, but has nothing to say about such fundamental issues as the origin of wheat – yet agricultural history displays its own distortion, in that crops receive more attention than livestock.  Other than clover and turnips, sources of fodder for livestock do not receive much of a billing at all.  Even among livestock certain species (notably sheep) are featured disproportionately.  It becomes clear that research tends to omit topics which are unfamiliar today or which failed to attract early ‘improving’ authors.  Consequently, a further omission is that the wealth obtained from wildlife receives little attention (except perhaps fishing and whaling), but this is seldom presented in conjunction with the greater output of farmed animals.  Accompanying this is the fact that, in recent centuries, wild species have enormously declined and farmed ones – a total of one billion chickens across the globe! – have immensely increased.    

The bulk of the text details the history of the environmental and agricultural changes that produced economic growth and remodelled the whole of society.  First came a resource grab in the form of Europe’s seizure of trans-Atlantic fisheries, followed by the ever-expanding slaughter of seals, whales and seabirds. Next, colonisation, starting with North America, inspired a moving frontier on which beavers were slaughtered for fur and buffalo were killed for hides, meat and a host of other purposes. Almost simultaneously, Europeans and European colonists began moving innumerable animal species around the globe. Case studies are included here of stocking Australasia and redistributing freshwater fish globally. These processes of translocation, which continue today, reshaped the biological environment and with it the world geography of economic resources.  Commodities were taken from the wild and pressed into services of every type; their replacement by synthetics came later and is far less complete than is usually thought.

Turning from wildlife to agriculture, crucial early developments affected the supply of livestock fodder.  Studies normally highlight the introduction of clover and turnips and understandably feature the difficulties of inserting them into communal farming systems.  But an intensified use of pasture began earlier and was supplemented by a now-forgotten dependence on other sources of feed.  Special notice is taken of the use of tree-hay and (along the North American seaboard) salt hay.  Animal breeding was improved and an array of species were pressed into supplying transportation and traction.  The relative costs of producing animal power can be seen to have influenced, and indeed almost determined, the location of early industry in north-western Europe and, more particularly, in north-western England.  Beyond this central development, which involved horses especially, the book seeks out an animal which is ordinarily side-lined: the pig.  While investigating the production of pork, it emerged that pigs – alongside geese and turkeys – were driven to market on foot for hundreds of miles.  Before railways, this forced migration was essential to supplying English and American cities with food.  In the United States, driving pigs even surpassed the vaunted droving of cattle from Texas, despite the modern misconception that pigs are impossible to drive.

Nineteenth-century changes took a long while to replace the rearing of animals in close proximity to human settlements, such as building dovecotes to house doves which were exploited for food or constructing warrens to rear rabbits.  The ultimate case of proximity was, and remains, the keeping of pets. Here arises another bias in the available literature, which stresses the benefits of keeping pets but overlooks the negative social effects. 

Animals have not been entirely neglected by the history profession; there has been something of an ‘animal turn’. However, it is argued in this book that, even so, omissions and distortions have prevented a full grasp of the combined force of the animal contribution from emerging. The topic is not prominent in syllabuses and is rarely treated as a whole, and the economic aspect is not emphasised.  Yet, in a startling transition, humanity began to deplete the world’s biological resources and raise livestock productivity by diversifying fodder supplies.  The early modern age – a period which has attracted less interest in this respect than both ancient and modern times – saw the prime of the upsurge in these activities. 

Food and raw materials do matter.  Rather than lying inert, society and the economy developed actively in the period shortly before industrialisation.  The twin accession of resources kick-started much of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century economic growth.  This was Smithian Growth – meaning better resource allocation – and was the seedbed without which industrialisation could neither have occurred so fast nor spread so rapidly in English-speaking countries and continental Europe.  At the same time, hand-tool technology was advancing fast; this is typically over-shadowed by the scale of the mechanisation that followed.  The ignorance of prior gains in allocative and technical efficiency stands in the way of understanding the fact that the history of human advance took place, in large part, at the expense of the animal kingdom.

Eric Jones is currently Senior Fellow, University of Buckingham, UK, and Emeritus Professor of Economics, La Trobe University, Australia. He has both DPhil and DLitt degrees from Oxford University, where he was a research fellow of Nuffield College. He has held varied academic positions, including the Irving Fisher Research Professorship at Yale, Membership of the Institutes for Advanced Study at Berlin, Princeton and Wassenaar, Netherlands, Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Osaka Gakuin University, Japan, and the John Simon Professorship at Manchester. His many publications on economic, agricultural and environmental history include The European Miracle: environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia (1981), Growth Recurring: economic growth in world history (1988), Cultures Merging: a historical and economic critique of culture (2006) and Barriers to Growth: English economic development from the Norman Conquest to Industrialisation (2020).

A History of Livestock and Wildlife: Animal Wealth and Human Usage is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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