Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Bhutan : Bumthang bids its woolen tradition goodbye

26 August, 2008 - Bumthang is known for its woolen products but that reputation may have changed.

Lesser Bumthaps rear fewer sheep. One reason is the increasing number of wild dogs and bears, who target sheep as prey. Another is development.

There were about 3,000 sheep in 1998 but that number dwindled to about 800 in 2007, according to the dzongkhag’s livestock records.

Besides wild dogs and bears, other animals, including stray domestic dogs, home in on sheep. Wild dogs attack in the day and bears at night. Shepherds say that bears cause maximum damage. When a bear breaks into a shed, it drags away one sheep but leaves behind eight to nine dead ones.

Because of predators and the difficulty in guarding sheep, especially when young people have left for the towns, farmers have slowly given up weaving their popular woolen clothes, replacing them with imported clothes.

Dorji Tshomo, 50, from Chokhortoe, said that sheep rearing in the past was necessary for clothing. There were no imported thick clothes available then and people had to wear woven woolen clothes to cope with the dzongkhag’s cold climate, she said.

“People wore double woolen ghos and kiras to protect themselves from the cold,” said Dorji Tshomo. They wove items such as Chara Nap from the wool of black sheep, Tarichem by mixing the wool from white and black sheep, Yathra and Mathra clothes, she said. The products found their way into towns where tourists and officials bought them.

Dorji Tshomo looked after sheep till she was 29 years old. What once was a large swathe of green meadow on which hundreds of sheep grazed is now thick with shrubs and bushes, she said. “The sheep were taken down from the mountains to the villages during winters and taken back up during summer,” she said.

Kinga Tshomo, 49, from Zhurey in Chumey, said that before every household in the villages owned 20 to 30 sheep and there would be one young child each looking after the sheep in the meadows by the village. Today only a few households own sheep and that too around 1-5 sheep.

“Farmers lose around 20 sheep to the predators every year,” said Kinga Tshomo.

Tshering Choki, 62, from Kizom in Tang, said she had more than 20 sheep a few years ago but that she had lost them all to wild animals. At any rate, she said, her children have started going to school and there was nobody left to look after sheep.

The assistant dzongkhag livestock officer, Dawa Dorji, said that the interest of the people in rearing sheep had gone down as the production of wool products was time consuming. “They even use imported wool for weaving Bumthang Yathra,” he said.

The manager of the national sheep breeding centre (NSBC) at Dechenpelrithang in Tang, Bumthang, Tshering Wangchuk, said that, although the population of sheep in villages has “drastically” dropped, the demand for it has not.

Few commercial textile weavers still buy wool from the centre at Nu 140 a kg. Tshering Wangchuk also said that the centre used to supply its breeds to the dzongkhag to promote production of fine wool, but that activity has declined because farmers don’t want it, he said. The centre is now rearing sheep for the sake of preservation.

By Nima Wangdi

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