… and circumspection, and not if you’re easily shocked (!). I honestly didn’t know what to call this post – family planning for sheep? Google ‘sheep contraceptives’ and you get some surprising results, most of which are not what I’m thinking about at all. At all!
I’ve been doing some research on historic shepherding and, as you do when you are possessed of what my father called a ‘grasshopper mind’, you get diverted. This time I’ve strayed into the
occasionally frequently rather strange world of controlling sheep breeding in the past (and not always the past). And this definitely fits into the series of ‘strangeness of sheep’ posts.
Sheep, generally and nowadays, have their lambs in the spring when there is plenty of grass for them, and a good growing season before winter sets in. The ewes come into season in autumn, triggered (it is believed) by shortening day length, and the lambs have five months’ gestation. We just take this pattern for granted – well, unless we know something about breeds that don’t follow the pattern, like British Dorset Horn. They can breed at almost any time – unless controlled.
Lambing is insane, and anyone who follows Herdy Shepherd on Twitter or who has read his wonderful book The Shepherd’s Life knows this. Despite this it makes sense to concentrate it over a period of time when you can give the sheep close attention at all times and also protect them when they are at their most vulnerable. I suspect that this is how the seasonality gradually developed, ages and ages ago, during the long process of domestication.
Breeding also needs to be relatively controlled – or very controlled – to improve the stock, or at least keep them healthy. It can be controlled by not allowing the rams access to the sheep until you want them to do the business, but in the past (and in nomadic societies) rams often ran with the flock. So what do you do then?
You have to stop your ram doing what a ram does, basically.
Curiously, York Castle Museum have chosen not to illustrate their catalogue entry for what they call a ‘ram preventer': ‘a pair of studded wooden balls, suspended from a length of chain, used to prevent a ram from mating’. In Sheep and Man M L Ryder says ‘it was put around the neck but to what extent it was used or successful is unclear’. Possibly just as well.
Then there were knickers. Well, sort of.
Really. Knickers for sheep. And, no, I have been unable to find any sensible illustrations of those either, but knickers is what they essentially are. Various, er, ‘apron-like’ devices are actually strapped to a ram to stop him from mating. Ewes have also been made to wear odd things – the Romans would put a rush basket on the ewe’s rump – and they have often been ‘bound with canvas’. It was especially used on common land to prevent uncontrolled mating by roaming rams (think lads on the pull), apparently.
The Ruskin Museum in Cumbria – I love local/folk museums – talks about a practice known as ‘bratting’, which it says (2015) is still used by some farmers as a ‘form of contraception for younger female sheep':
‘Herdwicks are smaller than the average sheep, and a ewe can die or become poor and stunted in growth if she lambs at too young an age. A ‘TWINTER ‘is a sheep approaching her second birthday; a ‘THRINTER’ her third. Some twinters are ‘BRATTED’ or ‘CLOUTED’, whereby a piece of clout or a brat is sewn over their bottoms as a form of contraception. A brat is local dialect for a stout apron made of coarse, heavy-duty cloth (clout). This brat would remain in place from mid-November until February.’
I’ve also found evidence of a similar thing happening in Scotland, where it was called ‘breeking’, as in breeks / breeches, presumably.
They were more like a thong than full-waist pants, apparently – a strip wide enough to cover the ewe’s lady bits was passed under the tail and sewn on to the fleece on each hip. Modern photographs of Cumbrian sheep (check out the photos on Crookabeck Herdwick’s twitter feed for a rather natty one in purple) show the patch sewn over the tail, holding the tail down and impeding access that way – rather like an equivalent to the way the Roman basket worked, presumably. It looks oddly as though a real animal is being slowly transformed into a patchwork one.
And now I’ve managed to conjure up such a vision that I’m going to have to go and do something completely different – like defrost the fridge or have an argument with BT about our still-temperamental broadband. Sheep in thongs or patchwork pants indeed.
I think we’d better have a completely un-thonged illustration to end with:
Sheep in thongs… please do not try this at home!