Strange sheepy things – read on with care…

… 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!

Luttrell psalterI’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.

ramBreeding 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:

David Cox, Counting the Flock

David Cox, Counting the Flock; (c) Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sheep in thongs… please do not try this at home!

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43 thoughts on “Strange sheepy things – read on with care…

  1. nanacathy2

    Totally adore this post. Mind still boggling over sheep in thongs! Feel I might have to go into York expressly to go to the castle museum, question should I phone them first to check out their display! You made me smile from ear to ear!!! 😊

    Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Having worked in the museums and galleries sector, I can imagine how staff on the information desk will react… !

  2. Elaine spinningsheepfeathers

    You just have too much fun over there, Kate, with all your inquiries and research!! Keep it up, please!

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’m wondering just how peculiar it can realistically get… Suspect I’m just skimming along on the surface of a whole lot more sheepy strangeness.

      Mind you, that’s doubtless due to the fact than we – humans – have been sharing our lives with them for so long. Something has to explain the knickers.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Nowak

    Hi, I thought this was an unusual fashion accessory for a sheep, perhaps it is a ‘brat’; which is also term for an apron in the Lancashire cotton industry meaning anything from an off cut of cloth tied round the body with string to a ‘Nora Batty’ type apron. Photographed near Coniston, Cumbria. Best Wishes, Margaret Nowak

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Didn’t know that about ‘brat’ – I wonder if the word moved into the mills along with workers from rural areas?

      (Shame the photo I think you hoped to attach didn’t make it – I’m intrigued.)

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth

        A brat is a cloak in old Irish: “brat cas corcra fo loí chaín” a woven crimson cloak of smooth fleece. The OED says it was probably adopted into Old English.

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          That’s beautiful. In Welsh, the other arm of the Celtic language family (so not surprisingly), brat also exists, but it means ‘rag’ (plu. bratiau) or – and I’ve just found this out – apron… But – wait for this – one highly academic dictionary also translates brat from Welsh into English as ‘clout’ (aka clothes, in ‘northern’ English). Truly, the Old North – Yr Hen Ogledd.

  4. Lydia

    Hah, hah! A wonderful post to read with my toast and tea this morning… who would have thought it? Thinking about sheep breeding though, of course it makes total sense to maintain control of which sheep goes with that and obviously the farmers were all very skilled at this as today we see the results of all their labours in the myriad of fabulous sheep breeds out in the fields and dales right now. At least if I were in Britain I would, in Western Australia I tend to only see dorper sheep, corriedale and perhaps merino….I am sure others are out there but they must be well hidden and need further investigation by me…. Great to read all about this as ever….

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I’m not sure I’d like it to have accompanied my breakfast (see question and reply about lavvy and fly strike)…!

      I can say with certainty that round here I have never seen a sheep wearing what are, effectively, pants. Can you imagine what the Welsh sheep joke would be like if they did?

      Reply
  5. Annie Cholewa

    Crookabeck Herdwicks tweeted a pic of a ewe complete with fancy purple clout recently. Of course clout simply means patch of cloth, but purple? You have to wonder if there’s a new season’s colour thing going on.

    Reply
      1. kate Post author

        Thanks, Annie, that’s amazing. Doesn’t quite match the description I’ve found elsewhere (admittedly somewhat sketchy, as if middle-class, academic commentators couldn’t quite bring themselves to mention too many details), but how hilarious to see sheep contracetion being mentioned in the media! Yo!

        Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Reply no 2 – found it on their twitter feed. Fab!

      Still mystified about fly strike when patched up, though. Am editing post!

      Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Check out the pictures in the link Annie put in her comment – doesn’t match the description I’ve found elsewhere, but may help to answer the sheep-loo question. Worn like that, I’d have thought they’d encourage fly strike, though…

      Reply
      1. Annie Cholewa

        Just a guess, but not many flies around that early in the year? Pia as I understand it clouts prevent the tail lifting/moving enough for anything racy to be possible

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          Just been speaking to sheep-farming friend. After he stopped laughing, he said fly strike is worst in March to winter or when it gets cold, generally the blowfly larvae need warm and humid conditions. However, the moisture from pee and poo can encourage the larvae to develop so it can happen at any time. Reckons climate change is already affecting it, too. It’s the reason why lambs often had their tails docked (almost always in the past – I remember that, clearly).

          Then he waxed disgusting on how horrible fly strike is. Again, I dimly remember the adults talking about sheep being eaten from within by maggots… Just the sort of thing to fascinate kids. Ergh!

    1. kate Post author

      An action shot! (So glad it’s not just me googling some rather odd things – ‘sheep contraceptive’ brough up some very strange images…)

      This definitely seems to be the Cumbrian way of doing things. Wonder if anyone knows of it still happening anywhere else? It was once fairly standard behaviour…

      Reply
  6. Margaret Nowak

    Sorry it didn’t make it, I’ve reduced the size and hopefully it fits. In case not it is a little bias cut, pink checked patch that is sewn in place over the sheeps tail base, pinning its tail downwards. It makes you wonder about the viability of the other functions that occur at that end. Margaret

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      It didn’t, never mind, it can be a pig to attach pics to comments – your description is very clear, and (apart from the colour and the bias cut detail) fits the image on the Crookabeck Herdwick’s twitter feed. Another Cumbrian example, of course…

      Reply
  7. croftgarden

    Thank you, I laughed so much that I almost fell off my kneeling stool (a rocking stool that aligns your centre of balance and makes you sit upright – perhaps we’d better not go into devices for correcting posture). I love the idea of a Hebridean tup in plaid breeks – could be a case of first catch your ram! I must ask my neighbours about this one

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Be careful on asking your neighbours. I thought one of mine was going to have a heart attack because he laughed so much he started wheezing, and he’s a sheep farmer. Fortunately one who knows me already…

      Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Oh, I spotted it too, isn’t it FABULOUS?! Everyone must click on this, I don’t care if it’s off subject!

      (Given the nature of the subject, that’s probably just as well…)

      Reply
      1. croftgarden

        I knew you’d love it! It made me smile at the end of a very cold, wet windy day when I’d been chained to the desk to make me finish that latest batch of bureaucratic nonsense forms.

        Reply
      2. Sally

        Did you realise that if you are driving up the M6, you will be going within 20 minutes of the Woollen Woods at Talkin Tarn? If it fits into your itinerary, give me a shout and I’ll come and see them with you – I haven’t been myself yet, which I must remedy!

        Reply
        1. kate Post author

          They do sound amazing – you’ll have to take a break now lambing is almost over and report!

    1. kate Post author

      Hee hee, glad you enjoyed it. I’ve found this article slightly worrying, you know – I mean, the close attention it’s been getting… the research that has clearly been going on in some (possibly equally twisted) quarters – we’re all weird.

      Reply
  8. grackleandsun

    I’m with Pia. How do they do their bathroom business with any amount of hygiene? Doesn’t seem possible. The flies would be awful. Also, this technique would only work on wool sheep. So, no fancy bum aprons for our Katahdins, lol. On another note, the media article Annie linked to said that the clouts were for “slutty ewes”, and I think it’s interesting (in a srsly? kind of way) that even when talking about sex and sheep, it’s not the rams’ fault. Always blaming the ladies. I know it’s meant to be funny, but I think it’s a telling comment even still.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      Well quite… I don’t think we’ve really answered that one, though there’s been lots of speculation.

      I’m with you on the ‘slutty’ thing – stupid piece of writing that should have been subbed out. Funny? Nah, not really. Insidious…

      Reply
      1. kate Post author

        We had one called Lady Di. (I know, I know.) She wasn’t, particularly, but she did have this habit of looking upwards at you through her eyelashes. Hence the name…

        Reply
    1. kate Post author

      My lord, that looks like a weapon of torture! Thank you so much for finding that (and I enjoyed the rest of the post as well, quite took me back to my visits to the Castle Museum). Horrific, poor sheep!

      Reply

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