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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Gujarat’s indigenous Patanwadi wool and sheep, on a steady fall

For Mongabay India

Published on 1 August 2023

  • There is a sharp decline in demand for indigenous Patanwadi wool from Gujarat, affecting sheep breeders, herders and weavers.

  • A stiff competition by imported, finer quality wool and environmental factors are the main reasons for this fall. Changing climatic conditions, inadequate fodder and diseases are leading to the Patanwadi wool becoming coarser.

  • Maldharis now prefer rearing sheep for meat instead of investing on wool-producing breeds like the Patanwadi.

Gujarat's indigenous Patanwadi sheep (Pic: Azera Parveen Rahman)

It was a long day here, in Kachchh, when we were out in search of Gujarat’s indigenous breed of sheep, the Patanwadi. There are less than 5,000 sheep of this breed left in the state today.

Finally, after travelling about 80 kilometres from Bhuj, towards Nakhatrana, we met Nauba Jadeja, a Maldhari, and his herd of 150 Patanwadi sheep. “I am keeping them just because of my attachment. My ancestors had all kept the Patanwadi,” Jadeja said, adding that he is the only one in his village to still have them. “But I think this will end with me,” he continued.

A decline in the demand for indigenous wool, shrinking pastures and other environmental factors contribute to the diminishing popularity of the Patanwadi, which, if not arrested could lead to its complete loss.

The Patanwadi breed is mostly found in the Kachchh and the Saurashtra regions of Gujarat and is often termed the ‘carpet-wool breed’ because of its coarse wool. “Traditionally, the Maldharis would give us (the weavers), their sheep wool after monsoons and then migrate with their livestock to other places for greener pastures,” shared Rana Jaimal Vankar, a weaver from Mota Varnora village in Kachchh. “When they return during Diwali (a festival of lights in the months of October/ November), in the beginning of winters, we would have their dhabda (blanket) woven with this wool ready, as well as jackets, etc.” This practice has now faded.

Gaba bhai Khengar bhai Rabari, another sheep herder who has 50 Patanwadi among his herd of 100 sheep, said that his family does not use the traditional dhabda anymore. “It was used by my father, grandfather and other ancestors. We now use blankets bought from the market,” Gaba bhai said.

But the fall of desi wool’s popularity — which in turn has affected the Patanwadi sheep — is far more complex than this.

No takers for indigenous wool

The Gujarat Sheep and Wool Development Corporation Limited (GUSHEEL), under the state government, spearheads activities related to sheep and wool development — the foremost being procurement and sale of wool. However, the agency has stopped wool procurement from sheep breeders since 2018-19. Between 2015 and 2018, the rate of procurement was Rs. 18 per kg, and in 2014-15 it was Rs. 49 per kg.

This has had a severe impact on the sheep breeders, herders and weavers. Apart from being able to sell their wool, GUSHEEL would also take care of vaccinations and other health check-ups of the breeders’ livestock. These practices have now diminished.

“GUSHEEL itself needs to be revived,” Y. Solanki of GUSHEEL told Mongabay-India. “Since 2013 we have had a severe human resource shortage.” This, he said, is why the agency has not been able to do much despite discussions with NGOs such as Khamir and Sahjeevan for different solutions. The Central Wool Development Board, which the NGOs approached for funds to help sheep breeders, has imposed a condition that they can only do so when there is a government agency associated with the initiative — in this case, GUSHEEL. “But the availability of human resource is our limitation. The government is also not showing interest in reviving the indigenous wool or sheep,” Solanki said.

Weaver Rana Jaimal Vankar holding yarn made of Patanwadi wool (Pic: Azera Parveen Rahman)

Some sheep herders, like Jadeja, would earlier sell the wool to those who came to shear the sheep. Maldharis pay, on average, Rs. 13-15, to shear each sheep; shearing takes place twice a year — once, around February when winters recede and the weather becomes warm, and second in July, during the monsoons. “Earlier, the shearers, most of whom would come from Rajasthan, would themselves buy the wool. But now, they are no longer interested. So, I spend money on shearing my animals and earn nothing in return,” Jadeja told Mongabay-India, “I have been discarding all the wool lately, because there are no takers.”

Shearing, said Sandip Kanojiya of Sahjeevan, is necessary to maintain the health of sheep, “hence the sheep breeder has to shear the animal even if he cannot sell the wool”.

According to Vasant Saberwal of Centre for Pastoralism (CfP), a Sahjeevan initiative, “80 percent of indigenous wool in India is discarded.” “On one hand, India imports huge quantities of wool and on the other, the indigenous wool is discarded,” Saberwal told Mongabay-India. “Indigenous wool particularly from western India such as Gujarat, and the Deccan region are finding fewer takers. This wool is coarse and short-staple, unlike the bulk that is imported, which is long-staple and softer.” Indigenous wool from Himachal Pradesh is longer, he added, and therefore sells more. In 2022, CfP published a report, titled Desi Oon—Hamara Apna which said that the thrust of India’s policies on sheep and wool development has been to further cross-breeding programmes with exotic breeds like Merino. This has resulted in the dilution of indigenous wool-producing breeds.

As part of the same report, a survey was conducted to count the number of Patanwadi sheep in Gujarat and “the number was found to be less than 5,000”. Ramesh Bhatti of Sahjeevan estimated that the number was even lower — “maybe around 2,000”.

Furthermore, environmental factors also play a role in the decline of indigenous wool and the indigenous sheep.

Changing climate, shrinking pastures

When asked about the quality of Patanwadi sheep wool, all stakeholders — sheep breeders, weavers, NGOs working on the issue, government agency — said the same thing, that it is becoming more coarse and is therefore struggling to find any takers in the market.

“There are several reasons for the wool becoming coarse. Earlier, the rains came on time, for four months, and the pastures would become green. The animals had ample fodder. Now, the rains are erratic,” Gaba bhai told Mongabay-India, “The quality of fodder is not as good and I suspect this is why the animals’ health is deteriorating and the wool is also becoming coarse.”

According to Gaba bhai, health issues like nasal bleeding, diarrhoea, and problems in the throat are increasing among sheep. “These were not so common about 10-15 years ago,” he said.

Jadeja added that he now has to walk longer and farther to graze his animals. “The area looks green but unlike earlier, now there are plants that the sheep don’t graze on like gando bawal (Prosopis juliflora). There are thorny plants that injure them,” he said. P. juliflora is an invasive species and according to IUCN , the proliferation of invasive species is often exacerbated by climate change.

Kanojiya added that the spurt of wind turbines in this area also means that grazing land is shrinking. “Wherever there is a windmill, there is a pathway to access it. This means that that whole area on which pastoralists grazed their animals is now cleared,” he said.

Maldhari, Nauba Jadeja with his herd of Patanwadi sheep. He is the only one in his village to still have the indigenous breed in the herd. (Pic: Azrera Parveen Rahman)

V. Shamji, a weaver in Bhujodi, also known as the weavers’ village, said that a delay in winters is also affecting the wool quality of sheep. “Instead of shearing their animals in February first week, when winters would generally recede, animals now have to be sheared in March, because the cold season is delayed. This means that the second shearing is also affected. This is affecting the quality of wool,” he said.

Shamji, Rana and other weavers also think that a lowering interest among pastoralists in the upkeep of their animals, like bathing them regularly, is also affecting the wool quality. Pastoralists agree. “I don’t want to invest anymore on getting wool when I am not earning in return,” Gaba bhai said.

Meat over wool

The sum of all these changes has been that the traditional sheep breeding system, which was once oriented towards wool production, is now moving towards meat production.

According to GUSHEEL’s Solanki, 80 percent of the Maldharis’ revenue now comes from selling the animal, while 20 per cent comes from wool production and manure. “There is now a new breed introduced in Kachchh called Baradi. Fifty percent of sheep are now of this breed. It hardly bears wool and so there is no requirement for shearing,” he said.

CfP’s report on indigenous wool says the same, noting, “Barring the Himalayan region, the number of wool producing breeds have decreased in the western and the Deccan regions, while the number of meaty breeds have increased.”

Innovation needed to save indigenous wool and sheep

In the face of losing indigenous wool and the genetic diversity of sheep, efforts are underway by different organisations to save them both. Khamir, for instance, started an initiative in 2016 to procure indigenous wool directly from Maldharis which is then used to make furnishing such as rugs, cushion covers, mats as well as coats and jackets. Sahjeevan on the other hand procured two shearing machines so as to cut the cost of hiring shearers by the Maldharis.

“The most important intervention would however be to find different uses of this wool,” Saberwal said, “We are working with other organisations, innovators, designers, architects, to use discarded indigenous wool to make acoustic insulation material.” There is a big industrial demand, globally, to use wool for acoustic and thermal insulation, he added, and this could perhaps be the way out of this bleak picture.

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