The wisdom (and occasional oddness) of shepherds

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about shepherds, and not just because I’ve been re-reading James Rebanks’ excellent book The Shepherd’s Life. It’s was the contrast between the role of the shepherd (as opposed to those farmers and crofters who are simultaneously their own shepherds) as both farm servant and independent individual which initially interested me. And then I got distracted…

Shepherds have always been among the most trusted and respected people on a farm; in nineteenth-century Scotland, for instance, they were often the most important of farm servants, living an independent life and frequently running their own sheep with the main flock, as they also did in Sussex. Many of the old shepherds spoke of ‘my sheep’ in interviews, and the weren’t just referring to those (if any) that actually belonged to them. Shepherds were on their own for long periods of time, often without supervision or oversight. They had to be trusted.

Sheep and Shepherd, by James Walsham; courtesy of Baldock Bassetlaw District Council

As George Ewart Evans says about Suffolk in Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, ‘a farmer would have to be sure of his man before entrusting to him a flock of sheep whose welfare depended solely on the skill and trustworthiness of the shepherd and his occasional assistant’. There’s trustworthy and trustworthy, mind – pick your definition – because trustworthiness and confidence didn’t mean that shepherds were necessarily well rewarded.

35_5184Generally, in fact, they were not: poaching and (in some areas) smuggling were almost necessary for survival. The long interior pockets in a traditional smock were useful for the first activity: they could easily hold a couple of rabbits (but they weren’t big enough to hide a hare). One ninteenth-centrury Suffolk shepherd – Liney Richardson – chose the latter option: he both helped the smugglers land and hide the cargo, and then would drive his flock over any traces of nocturnal traffic.

But, looking back from the perspective of the present, some shepherding traditions and beliefs can seem a little strange – however, they are generally anything but.

Take sheep and memory. Since, oh, biblical time (and doubtless longer, but there are no records, prehistory being just that, pre-written-history) shepherds have known that sheep can recognise different people and have quite efficient memories. Scientific research has been carried out into sheep memory and – surprise, surprise – has established that sheep do, in fact, have quite good memories.

Less logically, perhaps, in some areas it’s bad luck for a shepherd to count the animals in the flock. Apparently this is also done by wolves, so humans must not even think about it (and there are several potential posts to be had on the language of sheep counting – yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp*, that sort of thing – but it’s too huge a subject, and I’m not sure I’m linguistically qualified to do so anyway). In Mediaeval France sheep were specifically given bells when grazing near woods because of wolves – allegedly this was to scare them off, but I don’t imagine a determined and hungry wolf would be much scared by a bell. But I’m probably wrong in this assumption: in Sheep and Man, Ryder mentions ‘one South Dakota herder’ who recently [1977] put bells on his flock to ‘deter coyotes’. I don’t imagine he would have done that unless there had been good reason for it.

(Interestingly, the bells were not worn – or sounded – all the time. In some places they were muffled with grass in the run up to Easter or when a shepherd was ill, and might be muffled or removed completely when moving a flock through a town or village at night. They were also removed during mourning, so presumably the wolves respected the dead as well.)

A collection of animal bells – cow, sheep and goat

There is something incredibly evocative about the sound of bells on animals – now most frequently heard on goats in places like southern Spain (there are some clips on YouTube of belled sheep in Sardinia). But it’s a sound that would have rung out across huge parts of the world in the past, and it was common in Britain too.

One area in East Anglia had four or five flocks that used the same piece of common land. Each flock’s lead sheep had a bell and each bell had a different note – probably because they were a different size, though this is not explicit, but the most common iron bells could not be tuned – meaning that flocks could be distinguished in the dark or in fog, of course. In Suffolk the lead sheep was called the ‘cosset’ – it had probably been hand-reared by the shepherd as it was one which was particularly attached to him – and the cosset would follow the shepherd, the flock would follow the cosset and the dog would bring up the rear and keep tabs on any stragglers.

Shepherd’s crooks go right back. Biblical shepherds used a long straight staff plus a rod, which was also useful for self-defence; in ancient Greece, shepherds seem to have used something more curved. Jean de Brie, writing in 1379, said that ‘the shepherd adorned with his crook is as noble as a bishop with his crozier’ – itself modelled on the shepherd’s crook. The hockey-stick type was common in Medieval England,

Tending sheep

and in eastern Europe, quite recently, the wooden heads might be carved into things like dragons, snakes and ram’s heads, and were generally carried across the shoulders. In nineteenth century Britain crooks were often made of iron – ‘made from the barrel of an old muzzle-loading gun’ says Ewart Evans. One old shepherd interviewed by him dismissed shop-bought crooks as ‘only good for shepherd-girls in a play’. They had to be custom made, of course – to suit the particular sheep they were intended for.

Incidentally, most shepherds, all over the world, do seem to have been male – but not exclusively. Sometimes shepherding was a communal, family task, especially in nomadic societies, and sometimes – in the Balkans, for instance – many shepherds were female. I don’t imagine for a minute that they were like ‘shepherd-girls in a play’…

Eugene Verboeckhoven, A Shepherdess with her Flock

I’d just like to end by mentioning my favourite shepherd, albeit a fictional one: Granny Aching, in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. OK, she’s dead before the narrative of the first one – The Wee Free Men – takes place, but she’s left a powerful memory:

‘…Granny Aching’s light, weaving slowly across the downs on freezing, sparkly nights or in storms like a raging war, saving lambs from the creeping frost or rams from the precipice. She froze and struggled and tramped through the night for idiot sheep that never said thank you and would probably be just as stupid tomorrow, and get into the same trouble again. And she did it because not doing it was unthinkable.’

* yan, tan, tethera, pethera, pimp – one, two, three, four, five. It’s often stated that these are Welsh. Not quite: in Welsh, which like French has masculine and feminine genders, it’s un, dai (m) / dwy (f), tri (m) / tair (f), pedwar (m) / pedair (f), pump. Admittedly ‘pump’ is pronounced ‘pimp’, but there you go. And there are all sorts of regional variations from northern Britain – that’s one I’ve known for ever – and there’s an interesting (if unverified) summary on Wikipedia.


16 thoughts on “The wisdom (and occasional oddness) of shepherds

  1. spinningsheepfeathers

    Thank you for such an interesting and historical post. I have a sheep bell like the one pictured and used it to call the children in at night for dinner. Now my grandson hears it calling him in.

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – it took me ages to track down a decent pic for some reason. And I’d have liked to add a YouTube link, but I couldn’t get my iPad to play ball (it needs updating, at some fictional point when I’m not using it)… The clips of sheep in Sardinia are quite something.

  2. croftgarden

    As you know I have mixed feelings about sheep – wool and lamb (in the oven) I love, but feral and in my garden induces apoplexy. However, I always enjoy your slightly quirky historic sheep stories and much prefer romantic visions of sheep on Sardinian hillsides with sheperds and bells than a nightmare of a rampagaing flock of feral Hebrideans (sheep that is)!

    1. kate Post author

      I am with you on that one, though the sheep which make it into my garden aren’t exactly feral (one’s called Bramble), they can certainly do a fair amount of damage. In fact, there are some emergency wall repairs going on – six feet is not enough. At least I just have one or tow, rather than a whole flock.

      Am just felting some bags made from Hebridean fleece… you could try felting the wool on the sheep, perhaps, if you have a big enough washing machine. Felts a dream, 🙂

  3. Lydia

    Yet another fascinating post from you…. I am hoping that James Rebank’s book will arrive magically on Christmas Day it has been calling me for a while. How interesting about the bells – reminded me of Heidi in the Alps but that of course was for cows. Shepherds crooks – the imagery of a crook and helping others has echoes from so long ago. I find the actual bending and shaping of the horn extraordinary … much to think about today for which a big thank you. Enjoy your weekend we are looking at 31oC tomorrow…

    1. kate Post author


      Hope you get and enjoy the Rebanks book – I think it’s excellent; such a good perspective on the rural way of life.

      We used to have a couple of stick dressers locally, and they were fascinating to watch. About ten or eleven years ago one of them did a small workshop at a big craft fair, and it was fascinating (even to those of us who just hovered in the background).

  4. Spade & Dagger

    I can still recall the clang (certainly not a ding or a ring) of cow bells, which seemed charming in daylight, keeping me awake in my tent at the foot of the mountains in NE Spain some years ago. Although only early September, thick blankets of mist dropped down at dusk creating a very chilly and eerie atmosphere with the bells clanging away in the distance.

    1. kate Post author

      I had a similar experience a few years ago – arrived in rural location late and bad tempered, bad weather, dusk turning into night, and the sound of bells from the hills around. Very spooky, and not much better in daylight – they were BIG goats with marked views on who could go where… At least you could hear them coming, though difficult to tell from where exactly due to echoes. But I expect their owners would have been able to pin point them exactly.


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