Some time ago I was beyond chuffed to have found a copy of M L Ryder’s huge tome Sheep and Man (I know, I know, but it was published in 1983 when you could get away with that sort of thing – when nobody even questioned it, much of the time).
What with one thing and another – mostly work – I’ve not done more than dip into it occasionally. But I’ve just sat myself down with a glass of wine and had an hour of browsing. And I’ve learned all sorts of things. I thought I knew about sheep. I now know that I know about 0.00005% of the stuff there is to know about sheep. Or as one of my visitors put it once, ‘those white fluffy things up there’. I thought she meant clouds, but no. She meant sheep. What she was pointing to were actually wild goats, but hey.
It’s a work of its time, of course: how could it be anything else? In the section on transhumance in Romania, for instance, Ryder talks about ‘the best features of traditional shepherding being incorporated into the collective system’ which (largely) ended in Eastern Europe with the fall of communism, but it is still fascinating. Do, I wonder, Romanian shepherds still wear the ankle-length sheepskin coat?
They did in 1982, when this photograph was taken.
Sheep and Man is full of fascinating facts and snippets. Let’s have a few:
- Shepherds in Maramures (Romania) regard the sheep as being holy, and say that it makes the sign of the cross on the ground before going to sleep.
- In Babylonia, sacrificial sheep were not wasted (the same was doubtless true elsewhere, but there is documentation in the form of some of the earliest written records here), but their meat was shared out: tails for metalworkers, breasts for the goldsmiths, ribs for the weavers, etc. The hind leg, the gigot, was the prime cut then too, and that was reserved for the god. Exact records were kept.
- In Ancient Rome, cheese from the evening milk should be taken to town by the shepherd the next morning. There were two kinds of sheep’s milk cheese, one very fresh (like this) and one salted and intended to last.
- And on the theme of keeping things to last: in 1840, one traveller in Afghanistan witnessed an ambush when some sheep were caught. They were killed and buried so that the raiding party would have something to eat on their return journey (gag).
OK, how about wool, then?
No, these two Frenchmen are not torturing the sheep (or doing anything suspect which might involve an early form of welly). They are washing the fleece in a flume and, quite frankly, I wish more farmers would take this up. Or even revive the art of washing sheep in the streams and rivers, as used to be traditional round here. Covering the garden (and myself, Next Door’s Cat and any passing visitors) in skanky fleece and sheep poo is one reason why I am contemplating never working with raw fleece again. OK, rant over.
- As early as Roman times, wool was sometimes washed off the animal, being scoured in a tub (presumably not a green plastic garden trug such as the one I use, ahem). Soapwort roots were used to remove the lanolin, and it was ‘reserved for use as a medicament’.
- The first shears are Iron Age in date; prior to that sheep were ‘rooed’: plucked; the sheep still moulted naturally as some ‘primitive’ breeds do today. On St Kilda a knife was used before shears were introduced, and Ryder speculates that this might have been the case in the more remote past.
- But there is no evidence of hand cards before the Middle Ages. I know ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ but what did they use? Intriguing. Maybe nothing – rooing would have removed some of the coarser fibres – but combing is more likely. Carding may have developed as wool became finer and matted more easily, which would have made it more difficult to comb.
- Wool, along with hair, has been used as a binder in plaster and paper making.
- Sheep’s foot oil was (still is?) used to grease violin strings
- Hippocrates advocated the use of greasy sheep’s wool as a wound dressing. (Not bonkers: it might encourage clotting, the lanolin would stop a wound drying out, and ‘some of the complex substances it contains may promote growth of new tissue’ – ‘Some secretions of sheepskin are bactericidal’.)
- One cure for sickness was to wrap the patient in a freshly removed sheepskin – and a ‘tea’ made from droppings could be used to treat all sorts of things from measles to whooping cough. So glad I did not know this when I had whooping cough a year ago.
- Many English village names bear testimony to the importance of sheep. Watch out for sceap derivates such as skip, ship, shap, or shep in the names: Shepton Mallet, Skipton, Shipley…
Ok, now I want to investigate old Californian mission brands. Or winter feeding in Mediaeval Italy. Or the reluctance of many settler families to appreciate the value of merino sheep in Australia. Or sheep-milk butter making. Or wool in Persian carpets. Or the ways in which sheep have been restrained (no, ye dirty-minded pups, ye) such as hobbling, yokes, and various tethers including a ‘sheep bow’. Or the use of wool threads in sorcery and witchcraft. Or healing: George III was given black wool stockings for his rheumatism… I can’t stop. Yes, I can: my wine is getting warm.
Let’s have some pretty sheep to finish. Gotland crosses. Local.