Tag Archives: Sheep

Sheep and people

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.

More:

  • 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.

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Hello sheepies!

Sorry about that. It’s how my brother used to greet the day when he was about, oh, five. Er, after he’d woken the whole house up at silly o’clock shouting that he’d ‘finis’ sleepin’ – which inevitably got the grumbling response of ‘well, we haven’t’. Anyway, it stuck, passing into family slang, so ‘hello sheepies!’ it is.

baaaaaaaa

Over on my gardening blog I’ve been tree following every month. This doesn’t involve waiting for ents to lumber over the hill (though it easily could, round here); it involves – er, tree following. Reporting on a specific tree once a month, and watching changes, wildlife, etc. I’ve been ‘following’ a hawthorn and I’ve been reporting on archaeology – it’s next to a dolmen – the weather, the fact the someone appears to have been casting a circle up there, and sheep. Oh, I’ve had wild goats as well. One wild goat, much lower down than is usual.

The tree is in a stunning landscape:

hawthorn

one which has been cultivated for time out of mind: some of the field systems are neolithic, as is the dolmen, of course. In high summer there are generally a few cows up here, but there’s not that much sign of the sheep – they go higher up. In spring they’re here, with their lambs once they’re not brand spanking new, and then they take themselves off. Or perhaps that should be ‘are allowed to take themselves off’, but the Scottish sheep I knew would take themselves off. Even over cattle grids (they rolled). That’s why the cattle grids needed gates too.

Now it’s the reappearance of the sheep that means the year is turning, whatever the temperature (they are moved even lower when snow looks likely – or definite, rather).

baaaa 2, ok 3

When I started paying my regular visits, the sheep would take one look at me and flee, bleating madly – perhaps they knew I was mentally dissing their fleeces (they’re Welsh Mountains: coarse, good for carpets, not garments, unless you’re very lucky). Or maybe not. Now they check me out and carry on.

I think they’ve become accustomed to me and realise I’m no threat. That’s not daft: sheep are a) brighter than you might think if you’ve not read any recent research or lived with them, and b) can recognise and remember for a couple of years about fifty human faces, as that research has shown. I’m pretty sure that this lot have got used to me because while I was talking these shots two hikers walked along the track above me. They were quiet, nothing unusual or scary about them – and the sheep scattered, returning once they’d gone.

(incidentally, research has also shown that sheep self-medicate. If they’ve eaten something that has made them unwell, they’ll find and eat something which makes them better – which, for instance, addresses constipation or indigestion. Shepherds and people who lived closely with sheep have known this for thousands of years, but it’s scientifically proven now, so that’s OK.)

baa

Very fine knees, this sheep.

And now the weather has turned, and all the sheep are sheltering in the shadow of walls, dolmens, Iron Age hut circles, gorse, hawthorns, etcetera, etcetera. It’s ridiculously mild, but also ridiculously wet and ridiculously windy (Irish Sea: southwesterly gale force 9, decreasing gale force 8, imminent). So to reassure myself that it’s not always like this, I’m ending with a picture which has nothing to do with sheep, wool, knitting or anything else. Castell Harlech in the sunset, a few evenings ago. Couldn’t resist…

Castell Harlech

It’ll stop raining soon. And these colours just have to end up in a sweater.

(Snowdon / Yr Wyddfa is the conical mountain in the middle, not looking that high really. But it is. Please do not even think about climbing it in flip-flops. Really. Or plimsolls.)

 

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.

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!

Lambs and keeping things crossed

Hee hee, there’s no connection really (despite the preponderance of sheep / Wales jokes, which I consider grounds for immediate independence and strict border controls – ‘Have you ever laughed at a joke about Welshmen and sheep? Yes? To the mines with you, bach’) but it looks as though my broadband is behaving itself again. I’m so excited. Ok, I’m quite excited.

However, my next post was going to be one of my longer, researched, historical/bizarre posts and I have to confess that it’s not ready. So here, as holding images, are some of the people (OK…) who have making the air round here very noisy indeed in the last couple of months. Bless.

Some things aren't edible

Some things just aren’t particularly edible, even for sheep. You’ll learn.

sweetie

and you know I’m no threat whatsoever, don’t you?

IMG_1928

It’s not a shadow, it’s a black lamb (remember an earlier post about coloured sheep? They happen quite spontaneously). And it’s very cute.

IMG_1932

Finally, just to give you an idea of the sort of environment these tough little Welsh Mountain lambs live in – I know it’s not a brilliant shot but it was windy, all right? And when I say windy, I mean WINDY- here’s a pair of twins below Moelfre (trans: bald place), which is the very recognisable hill above our village, and which is all shattered rock at the top and looks like Mordor. Lovely. Really.

BTW, The lambs may be tough, and the ewes certainly are, but there’s one thing they have a real problem with. Dogs.

I have had several ‘discussions’ with walkers who have had their dogs off their leads while near sheep this lambing season. In one instance the dog owner told me her dog was very good, perfectly under control – and before her sentence was even finished the dog had rushed off like a mad thing in search (I think) of a squirrel that had rustled in the bushes. It wouldn’t come back. She did eventually manage to grab it, getting thoroughly blackthorned in the process, and was putting it on its lead as I walked on – but for how long? Most dogs – well, 99.9% – will chase things given half a chance, and there’ve been some nasty pics on Twitter… please, please keep dogs on leads.

The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep, 2

(The one without Keanu Reeves, or indeed anyone you recognise from The Strangeness of Coloured Sheep 1. Of course It needs a portentous subtitle, like ‘Return of the Wool or ‘The Wool Strikes Back’… and the more high-flown the subtitle, the worse the film. Ahem.)

Sorry about that. Time, now, for some surprising facts specifically about coloured – generally described as ‘black’ – sheep. The first is really timely, so get out into the lambing sheds.

shepherds watchingIt’s very lucky if the first lamb you see in spring is black (but what if you breed Black Welsh Mountains or Zwartbles or Ouessants? Are you always lucky? And does it work if you’re watching Lambing Live on the telly?)

Anyway, if you see a black lamb before any white ones, you should make a wish immediately. This is particularly true in Scotland, where naturally coloured wool was valued because it was used in the shepherd’s plaid. It’s absolutely not true in Shropshire; in fact, it’s the opposite: extremely unlucky if the first lamb born in a flock is black, and even more so if it’s black twins (but black twins are also bad news in Scotland). And here’s another negative one: if the black lamb is the first one, the farm will be in mourning before the season’s out.

The ‘throwback’ effect gives the occasional black sheep quite naturally, of course. This can happen in the other direction: on Ouessant, for example, where the native sheep have been bred selectively for their black fleeces, there can be the occasional white animal.

In Sussex it was a good thing to have one of these surprising black lambs in a flock – very propitious. But only one; more than that and you might as well be in Shropshire. And yet all the Mediaeval shepherds in Books of Hours with their multi-coloured flocks seem to have been extremely lucky, given that angels chose to appear to them – so the specific superstition can’t go back that far. Or can it?

The bad luck thing – it’s also present in some parts of the Highlands – is probably where the ‘black sheep of the family’ expression originates; it could also come from a mis-transcription of an early Bible in English. However, it’s so widespread that it can’t be specifically that: the ‘black sheep’ idiom for a wayward member of a group is present in many different languages (le mouton noir, for example), not just in English.

Black wool, of course, was less valuable because it couldn’t be dyed. In the eighteenth century it was even seen in some places as being the mark of the Devil. And yet it often appears in traditional cures (mind you, I suppose that could be why it was associated with all things devilish). Wind a black thread round a limb which is sprained or broken and it will heal, and George III was given black stockings to help his rheumatism on the same basis. Using coloured threads like this goes back at least to Roman times, and links in to votive offerings of cloth at springs, something which I have seen in places as far apart as County Clare and the Caucasus.

Charles Jones painting

On the Hills of Scotland, Winter by Charles Jones; courtesy Royal Institution of Cornwall

Scottish seers – local fortunetellers who sometimes gained a wider reputation, like the Brahan Seer – sometimes used the blade bone of a black sheep for seeing the future. It had to be prepared properly, though, with all the flesh removed without touching iron or steel. How it was used varied from region to region; on Lewis, it was held by the seer in a line along the length of the island, as it were. In other places an assistant would hold the blade bone up over the left shoulder, and the seer would look through the thin, flared out part. The whole iron thing ties it in to very old superstitions and reaches right back into prehistory. Black sheep were also used in some parts of Africa, where the fat of a black sheep was effective against evil.

Let’s have some more positivity. Black sheep were very useful for ranchers in the US, at one time, and not that long ago. In the West, black sheep were used as markers when counting sheep – one for every hundred, making counting a flock much easier. A 1940s description of life on a Montana sheep ranch noted that it was impossible to count the entire flock on the range, but the black sheep could be counted and any missing ones would indicate that some white sheep had also gone astray (Call, Golden Fleece, 1942). They do give a nice bit of contrast to a landscape, anywhere.

Ayrshire Landscape

Ayrshire Landscape by George Houston; courtesy Glasgow Museums

I suppose the closest many people come to black sheep is when they are children, so let’s just think about ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’…

220px-BaaBaaBlackSheepMGMYou may think it’s just a nursery rhyme, but it’s turned into quite a contentious issue (as have many nursery rhymes, of course). Baa Baa Black Sheep is generally believed to be eighteenth century, but it may be older. Some people think it commemorates an ancient wool tax and some believe it’s linked to the abolition of slavery (but most scholars don’t). I don’t care, really – it’s another positive, or at the very least neutral, reflection of the glory and long history of coloured sheep. Yo!

 

The strangeness of coloured sheep (I don’t think)…

Sheep, as I was establishing in a post or two towards the end of last year, have all sorts of strangeness attached to them. Given that you can foretell the future by using sheep bones or stop yourself from becoming pregnant by drinking sheep pee*, it should come as no surprise that coloured sheep have some specific strangenesses attached to them. But they’ve also got a lot of normal history attached to them, too, something which tends to fade into the background.

odysseusSometimes they have Greek heroes attached as well. This particular coloured-sheep attachment is Odysseus, escaping from Cyclops. He clung beneath the belly of a ‘well- bred, thick-fleeced ram, a fine big animal with a coat of black wool’. It must indeed have been a ‘fine big animal’, or maybe Odysseus was small, or maybe Cyclops’ one eye failed to notice the legs sticking out at the end. Not to mention the sword sticking out at the front.

(In the classical world, white sheep were sacrificed to the celestial gods, and black sheep to the gods of the underworld – male to gods, female to goddesses. Natch.)

But why coloured sheep at all?

Moufflon

Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s because coloured sheep came first. The wild ancestors of domesticated sheep – probably mouflons, or mouflon-like animals – had dark coats. Dark, hairy coats, as do some wild sheep today, and some primitive breeds.

It’s been suggested that an increased desire for paler colours went along with the discovery of dyeing. If you want a white cloth, then you obviously don’t want to have to use coloured wool. And if you want to dye your cloth whatever colour you please, or dye your wool before spinning or weaving, then you don’t particularly want coloured fleece either. White fleece just is better for dyeing (not necessarily more interesting, of course) as the pigment in coloured fleeces interferes with dyeing, often in unpredictable ways.

So whiteness is a deliberately created feature of fleece, one bred for over millennia from occasional white- or paler-fleeced animals. Genetic modification, if you like. From right back, white fleeces have been premium products, and I mean right back. Some of the earliest written records in existence from the city of Ur – dating to about 2100BP – list grades of wool. The best was called the ‘property of the moon god’. Then came ‘royal’, and then, finally, the rest: ‘mixed, fine sheep neck, black wool, dead wool [sic], and wool combed from the third.’

There have always been throwbacks, the sudden appearance of a black sheep in a white flock, just as there would have been the odd pale sheep in a generally dark flock. They crop up quite often in Mediaeval manuscripts and books of hours. Check out the flock in the February illustration from the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

tres riches heures sheep(but don’t look at the peasants warming their bits if you’re easily shocked).

IMG_9054And here are some more, from another book of hours. A much more mixed flock, this one, as is the one in the background. Specifically black sheep are also written about in Mediaeval chronicles, and not in a metaphorical sense either. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) visited Ireland in the twelfth century and wrote that since the sheep ‘over there’ were black, the monks all wore black woollen robes – so he must have seen flocks that were largely composed of dark sheep. (They’ve also been mentioned more recently in Irish literature: in J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon is given ‘a coat of the blackest shearings for miles around’.)

That was a bit of an aside…

In some places in Classical Greece, water was said to determine lamb colour – for instance, if ewes drank from the river Psychrus in Thrace just before being mated, they would have black lambs. Aristotle contradicted that, saying that the colour of the veins under the tongue determined the colour, and Virgil repeated this (‘reject any ram, however pure and white his wool / if the tongue beneath his moist palate is black, for he’ll breed / lambs with black-spotted fleeces…’). Interestingly, there’s been some twentieth-century research confirming this, at least in Karakul and Gotland sheep.

gotland goodnessIn other places, the shepherds clearly knew what they were doing (I suspect they did anyway, and fed the posh gits from Athens a line about rivers). Strabo described breeds of sheep from Laodicea as being noted for their soft wool but also for their ‘dark or raven colour’, and adding that the combination had to be selected for.

I’ve got some soft wool with a ‘dark or raven colour’ to deal with, myself – my stash of Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain fleeces, selected from their original owners’ backs last July. I got them just before Christmas so they’re being washed, bit by bit, in the bath (it’s a bit cold out there). Doubtless this will mean a blocked pipe but I can deal with that; frostbite, I’m not so keen on. So I’m going to go and deal with the latest chunk and then dig out some really strange things about coloured wool and black sheep…

*Allegedly. This may not work. Just saying, as a disclaimer. Don’t come round here with prams full of children blaming me for the fact that the sheep pee didn’t work.