The bans on exports of lamb and mutton in Armenia have made Yazidi shepherds, the leaders in the sphere, suffer from the consequences of surplus.
Aragats, the highest mountain in Armenia, where Yazidi shepherds make camp. Located 3000 meters above sea level, the area is good for farming and has very few sheep. However, from May to September Yazidis, an ethnic minority in Armenia, move through the area with their flocks. Sheep breeding is the main livelihood for most members of the Yazidi community.
From 2009-2011, an estimated 150,000 sheep were exported from Armenia to Iran. After the economic hardship of the 90s, the sudden boom in demand for sheep encouraged sheep breeders to export with little concern for the sustainability of their flocks. As a result, mutton and lamb in Armenia became increasingly scarce and expensive. The Armenian government was forced to issue a ban on the export of young lambs in order to stabilize the sheep population.
Officials report that Armenia has 746,000 sheep and goats as of 2015 – an increase of 28,000 animals since the last report. The country produces 19,000 tons of mutton annually, and exported 7,900 sheep worth $441,000 this year alone. However, it is estimated that the country has the potential to export as many as 200,000 sheep per year.
“The more sheep you had, the richer you were.” Yazidis in Alagyaz, a small village in western Armenia, have traditionally used sheep as a way to measure a person’s wealth. Now the village is changing as more and more villagers who want to avoid the hard work that comes with shepherding are switching to cattle.
During the Soviet period, sheep breeding was one of the most developed agricultural activities in Armenia. By the 1970s, the number of sheep in Armenia was estimated to be over 2 million. The economic and political turmoil of the 1990s hit the industry hard, and the numbers of sheep have dropped dramatically.