This blog post is going to feature several sheep. Yes, that’s right I do mean the woolly, grass eating sort (as if there were any other). Having said that, my recent reading material has challenged any preconceptions that I might have had about sheep (even the grass-eating bit is suspect). Don’t ever let anyone tell you that sheep are boring because they are not (honestly) and they are not very docile either. They are however, very photogenic as the illustrations in my book testify (sheep are obviously shameless poseurs).
Thanks to a Twitter competition, I recently became the proud possessor of a book entitled Counting Sheep: a Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling (Profile Books, 2014, 2015). I have to admit that when I entered the competition I did it on a whim and came up with an answer before I really considered the merits of any possible prize. The story of Britain’s sheep breeds and their place in the social and economic fabric of the country has proved to be an enthralling read. Some breed names were already familiar to me, but much of the sheep history was not. I can now claim at least a nodding acquaintance with Cheviot, Swaledale, Portland and Jacob breeds. Moreover, of course, this book is not just about sheep, but about people, the land, trade, clothing history and more besides.
Before we go any further, I will put you out of your misery regarding the non-grass eating sheep. This type of sheep, inhabiting North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys descends from animals around in Viking times. The sheep in question, habituated long ago to eating seaweed as their main source of food, do also graze more conventionally when breeding. The diet of seaweed came about a couple of centuries ago due to changes in land use. Crofters confined the sheep to the island’s foreshore for most of the year to free up land for growing crops. These sheep can even swim for goodness sake!
The sheep adapted and throve on a diet of Palmaria Palmata (Dulse) which they graze on the outgoing tide. Rather disconcertingly, the sheep have also evolved a taste for eating the legs and feet of sea birds (dead ones I hasten to add). These are some tough sheep indeed and they are not the only ones. Some sheep varieties can survive and prosper in incredibly poor conditions, still producing quality wool and or meat. Fortunately, the Scottish breeds have developed a taste for eating heather. You also realise that shepherding, while affording a degree of autonomy in the workplace must have been (and probably still is) a very demanding and skilled job.
I am still only about half way through the book, yet I have become acquainted with an alternative history of Britain through the medium of sheep. They have been part of the landscape since the early breeds brought by the Romans and Celts. The trade in sheep wool was once a hugely profitable enterprise and one that changed the landscape forever as land use changed to raising and developing flocks. In the eighteenth century, men such as Robert Bakewell brought new techniques into sheep farming, producing new breeds and establishing modern sheep farming. Sheep history is problematic, encompassing as it does the Highland clearances, which populated huge tracts of land with sheep rather than people. Progress in farming meant displacement for those in the way.
I can foresee that I will be going around sheep spotting with the aid of my newly acquired knowledge next time I am back in Blighty. I can honestly say that I appreciate sheep and their influence on British landscape and social history in a way that I didn’t before. I probably would not have picked this book up in a bookshop, and I am glad to have had a chance to read it.
What chance discoveries have you made lately?