Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Animals of Cottage and Castle: Sheep

by Katherine Ashe

William Holman Hunt's "Stray Sheep" painted in 1852

Like all of the domestic animals we’ve considered, the sheep has been mankind’s partner in survival since ancient times. In fact the sheep is among the oldest, being with us since about 13,000 BC. “With us” may be stretching a point. Sheep have never been quite so cozy in our homes as cats, dogs and chickens. But people have followed them, herded them, plucked, sheared, milked and slaughtered them for meat from a time that was past memory even when Abraham was master of flocks in Judea.

An illuminated manuscript
pic of a shepherd
The shepherd, lowly in social rank in any culture from antiquity to the present, still enjoys a special attraction for the imagination – the allure of freedom outside the restrictions of village and town life. And it’s a stunning political statement in the New Testament that angels announced the birth of Christ to shepherds rather than to priests or kings – a declaration of a new religion specifically inclusive of, and even favoring, the most poor and humble.

For the ancient Greeks and grecophiles of 16th through 18th century Europe, the shepherd and shepherdess at home in the wilderness took on a romantic aura with more than a hint of promiscuity. But for those who labored at the work of crafts or farming, the shepherd seemed a lazy lout who did nothing but sit and daydream while his dogs guarded the sheep and gave warning at the approach of danger. Danger usually took the form of thieves, wolves or lions (yes, there once were cougar-ish lions even in Europe.)

Suffolk ram

Idle for much of the time – yes, although the shepherd had a number of specialized skills. He possessed incomparable knowledge of his country’s terrain, guiding his sheep from sheltered winter grounds to mountainous summer pastures. He acted as midwife at lambing time and as nurse to motherless or rejected lambs (called cossets – hence “cossetting”). In far ancient times he gathered the wool that was shed. As selective breeding developed (another of his accomplishments), he knew how to shear the wool from the skin with as little injury to his dismayed sheep as possible. The good shepherd knew his hundreds of sheep as individuals and who rightly owned them.

Romney ram

Unlike the flocks of Abraham, the sheep in Europe and Eurasia’s huge flocks often were the property of many owners. In ancient Rome, in medieval London, in modern-day Azerbaijan, it has been customary for the moderately rich, or even the poor with a little set by to invest, to put that excess wealth into the ownership of sheep. The immense flocks of the Pyrenees, the Cotswold hills or the Eurasian steppe comprised a sort of savings bank in which the city dweller might have his share: his “interest” paid from sale of wool and of young male lambs for meat, while the female lambs constituted the capital gain of his investment. Most ewes bear one to two lambs per year and every sheep, including year-old lambs, produces a salable fleece each year. Barring the hazards of disease, this investment can compare very favorably with the present-day bank savings account or the gyrations of the stock market.

Border Leicester lamb
From Roman times to the Industrial Revolution the raising of sheep in England was the principal basis of the country’s export trade. Annually, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the accumulated shearing was sent to Bruges where a banking consortium made cash purchase of the year’s shearing in its entirety. It was a national fiscal disaster when, in 1263, to finance the Crown’s attempt to regain sovereignty from the Parliamentary party of Simon de Montfort, Prince Edward (later Edward I) broke into the vaults of the Knights Templar in London, slaughtered the guards and stole the Wool Guild’s newly arrived annual shipment of gold from Belgium.

But what of the sheep? There are hundreds of breeds, originating in every part of the world. They are bred for meat, for their staple -- their wool that can be long or relatively short, fine or rough -- and in some places they are bred for milk from which cheese is made. Most sheep, including wild varieties from which domestic sheep first were bred, are white. This is very convenient for dyeing. Sheep fiber has a kink so that, when twisted together, the fibers stay twisted instead of sliding apart as will most hair and fur.

Shearing: This usually is done at the beginning of warm weather. By this time the sheep has been wearing her wool for a year and it’s gray, filthy and billowing around her so thickly that if she’s toppled over she can’t get up. If she won’t just lie there submissively, you sit on the ground with the poor animal upside down between your knees so she’s propped against your chest with her head on the far side of your shoulder (do watch out for those horns.) Pulling the wool to one side along the middle of her tummy, insert the point of your shears where the hair comes straight out from the skin; slip the blade between the hair and skin, and cut. Move the shears along, pushing off to each side what you’ve sheared. Roll the sheep between your knees to shear along her neck, shoulders, flanks and hips. Eventually you’ll have a near-naked sheep in your lap with only a strip down her back not yet sheared. Turn your sheep right side up -- while hanging on firmly -- and shear the last strip. The fleece will fall away and you can let your sheep bolt off to her stripped and embarrassed-looking herd mates. If you have several hundred sheep, you and your fellow shepherds can expect to spend a few days at this exercise. It may be done quickly, but there are points off for drawing blood.

Sorting: Each fleece is divided up, the best parts (back and sides) sorted from the worst (the breech), then the fleece is washed. In this process the sheep’s sweaty oil, lanolin, may be skimmed off. Yes, this is that hand lotion ingredient and perhaps it accounts for the attractiveness of shepherdesses.

Carding: Anciently this was done with thistles set in a board, then a pair of boards set with wooden or iron spikes (wire dog brushes are a small modern version of wool “carding combs.”) By the late Middle Ages manual carding had been replaced by a spiked drum through which the wool was fed. Whether by hand combing or machine, the object is to pass a matted wad of fibers through the comb’s teeth as many times as it takes to loosen the mat and set each fiber side by side in the same direction. The result is a pad, a rolag of aligned fibers that is then loosely rolled into the shape of a sausage.

Spinning: The rolag’s fibers are aligned in horizontal circles ready to be drawn out from the tip of the sausage-shape then twisted together by using a drop spindle (a smooth stick with a circular disk near one end) or that icon of feminine industry, the spinning wheel. Symbolic of virtue and economy (though also of witches), a spinning wheel was often a husband’s gift to his bride.

The sheep at Highclere, in a Paradise
Landscape typical of the 18th century
On England’s great estates small flocks of sheep were kept for their contribution to the landscape, their nibbling and evacuating producing magnificent lawns. For that sweep of classical, Arcadian and fenceless perfection, the ha-ha was used by designers William Kent and Capability Brown. It’s a deep ditch with a vertical wall on the outer side and a gradual slope on the inner. A sheep wandering down the embankment is confronted with a high wall of stone-reinforced earth that is invisible to the viewer from the far side. Out for a stroll and enjoying the view, one can easily step off the brink – amid gales of gleeful “ha has” from one’s companions.

Cheviot ewe with her lamb


Katherine Ashe is the author of Montfort, the four volume historical novel on the life of the founder of Parliament.


  1. I believe the Kers still keep an exotic breed of sheep on the archery field at Ferniehirst.

  2. Thank you, a useful summary. I've never been convinced though about the term 'ha ha' - seems nonsense to me. It's usually a drop that would cause real injury - not a laughing matter. Some people say it was a kind of 'ah ha' - a discovery noise rather than a laugh. That sounds weird too.

  3. Actually I don't know of people using thistles to card wool but they did grow and use teasels. Thistles would prick fingers and tangle the prickly bits in the wool. Teasels don't break off and don't snarl up the wool.

  4. Thanks for this article. Might I add - Rare breeds of sheep is a subject dear to my heart and during a visit to England quite some years ago I visited several farms which specialised in rare breeds. Jacob sheep have patched colours in their fleece and have 2 or 4 horns. Tiny Soay sheep come in cream, brown chocolate and tan - they shed their wool naturally while Manx Longtans can have 6 horns. Orkney sheep are small with short tails - the rams have large impressive curling horns and they can exist on a diet of seaweed. One day I should write a post about them. One day!

  5. Very interesting post! I find the Bible's comparison of man to sheep often appropriate. But it's good to learn more about them. The ones in your pictures look clean...alas, they often aren't.


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