A Little Bit Sheepish

Writing my last blog post, “A Good Yarn”, it was challenging to stay on track, to keep faithful to the threads running through my fingers. I kept finding myself tugged towards the fields, to my friends, the sheep. At some stage, as a knitter, you start to ask yourself where the yarn winding around your needles came from. You check the labels “Blue-faced Leicester, Merino, Rambouillet” perhaps you have a picture of those sheep in your mind. Or, maybe they are just sheep, all the same, woolly jumpers.

Unless you have spent time with sheep, you are likely to see them as virtually identical. Not at all. I’d have you know that sheep are all individuals with their own characters and peculiarities. Just because they like to stick together, doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of independent thought. “In reality, sheep are brave, enlightened and sassy”.

Always better to be inside the feeder

When you move countries, you physically change your environment, but you never change your internal landscape. Months after we moved to Canada, I realized that along with all the other differences I was struggling to adapt to, there was a distinct lack of sheep. Twenty-some years later, after moving up to Wakefield, I regularly see sheep on the local farms, but back then, there was a big sheep-shaped hole in my surroundings.

Sheep are everywhere in the UK. Unless you are in the middle of a city (and even then!), there are sheep to be seen daily. I grew up in a small village about the size of Wakefield. My daily bus ride to high school went through hills sprinkled with sheep. Hikes at the weekend took us further into the countryside where the sheep roamed free on common land, and dogs had to be leashed so they wouldn’t chase them. We spent holidays near the sea, often with a different breed of sheep wandering onto the narrow lanes and causing traffic hold-ups. I took them for granted; they were everywhere.

City Farm, Hackney, East London

I truly got to know sheep in my early twenties as a graduate student at an agricultural college. I worked with cattle mainly, but at nights and weekends, the grad students took turns to look after the animals, which included taking the necessary blood samples (as well as other types of samples, which I’ll leave to your imagination). It’s not difficult to blood sample a sheep. They have a healthy amount of wool to hang on to. All you need to do is identify the sheep of interest, separate them from the rest of the flock, corner them quietly against a gate or other immovable object. You lean your body weight against them, feel for the jugular vein in the neck (sometimes a challenge through the fleece), and then stick the needle in the right place (i.e., not your finger). It helps if you have a good dog with you; it also helps if the ram isn’t in the field. 

The stockmen at the college took a dim view of students.  They didn’t hold with all that “book-learning” and didn’t appreciate us “messing” with the animals. They were always out to teach us a lesson, particularly if we hadn’t grown up on a farm, and more particularly if we happened to be female. One weekend I was on duty, and the sheep in the small field at the bottom of the hill needed blood sampling. I hadn’t noticed that the stockmen had “forgotten” to take the ram out before the weekend, until, having cornered one of the ewes successfully and leaning over vacutainer in hand, suddenly I was upended. Glass tubes flew everywhere. Fortunately, I quickly came to my senses and ran for the gate and leaped it, just in time to avoid another battering. The not-so-subtle cross-questioning by the stockmen on Monday morning made me realize that leaving Roger, the ram, in with his ewes had been another specially designed joke at my expense.

Soay ewe.jpg
Soay sheep (from Wikipedia)

Despite that and other incidents, I became very fond of the sheep. The experimental herd used to study reproduction consisted mainly of Border Leicesters, large sheep with broad roman-like noses. They were very stoic and slow-moving. There were also Suffolk sheep, with black faces and a slightly sweeter nature. When they were inside the barn in stalls, I had more time to study them closely. I came to know them as individuals, each with their singular personalities. Some, more nervous than others, would stamp the minute I entered the barn. Others were curious and would come to the front of the stalls and stare vacantly at me with their horizontal pupils dilating. I never learned their language, I couldn’t figure out the different inflections of baaaa, but I’m sure that words were being passed around – student, panic, watch-out, needle, Owww. In my final year, the department acquired twenty or so Soays. I was utterly smitten.  These were fearsome little sheep with such strong characters. At lambing time, all the sheep were rounded up and brought into the barn in case they needed assistance. Not the Soays, they were such individuals that the sheepdogs couldn’t round them up; they would scatter. Moreover, they never seemed to need help lambing. They are one of the most primitive breeds of sheep, hailing from way up in the North of Scotland, and are quite capable of looking after themselves. I swear, those Soays deliberately waited until the stockmen had gone home to bed before dropping their lambs, thus gaining even more of my admiration.

Sheep have played a huge part in the English economy since medieval times. Vast numbers of sheep were raised by both peasants, and landowners, and the wool trade was fierce. Laws were passed to support the trade and encourage production (including a law in the late 1500s that required all Englishmen to wear a wool cap to church on Sundays). Even today, the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords sits on ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the importance of wool to the nation’s wealth. It wasn’t just England; landowners in Wales and Scotland also realized the huge amounts of money that they could make from raising sheep. From around 1750-1850, many landowners in Scotland turned their Estates from arable land to sheep farming, evicting the tenants from their homes and causing massive famine and death in the process. Many of those who lost their land and their homes fled to Canada; maybe some of Wakefield’s early settlers among them?

Sheep on the Welsh mountains

Sheep hold a pivotal place in English history. At one point in my life, I thought I would add to that history. I had dreams of raising a herd of rare breeds to save their genetics. I wanted to rescue those characteristics that I feared would be lost in the desire to homogenize sheep to suit particular markets for meat and wool. But, my life took a different path, resulting in a dearth of sheep for many years.

During those sheep-free years, I attended one of the Canada Dance Festival performances at the National Arts Centre. Standing in the foyer before going into the theatre, I noticed an area that had been cordoned off and covered in astroturf. Suddenly, a flock of human sheep was herded in through a gate. One sheep ran off and had to be chased through the crowd and captured by the shepherd, who then kept watch over the flock as they grazed and gazed at the audience. Les Moutons enthralled me. There were my friends! I stood right next to the fence as the sheep breathed shallowly, their whole bodies moving. One sheep stared blankly into my eyes. Another sat down and chewed its cud, its jaw moving rhythmically from side to side. Yet another clearly had foot rot. It knelt and chewed at the turf with its bum in the air. I almost reached in my pocket for my lamb’s foot penknife, to clean the gunge out of its hoof.

Watching Les Moutons, I was in awe of the amount of time the choreographers, Sylvie Bouchard and David Danzon must have spent studying sheep, to be able to convey those sheepy behaviours so distinctly. Similarly, Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann has to be one of the most charming studies of sheepiness I know. Reading the book, I was with my friends again; sheep with their own minds, out to solve a mystery – the murder of their shepherd. I was transported back to my college days among sheep that would stare at the clouds, sheep that were as fast as rockets, sheep that were slow, sheep that seemed to have a premonition of what was about to happen, sheep that just wanted to eat.

Sheep out for a stroll in Llanberis

Sheep are very present in our daily lives, whether we realize it or not, through the language we use. There are so many expressions – pulling the wool over your eyes, getting fleeced, being a bit sheepish, two shakes of a lambs tail, meek as a lamb, black sheep of the family – the list goes on. All of those expressions seem a bit unfair to the sheep I have known. My friends the sheep are brave, enlightened and more than a little sassy.


In reality, sheep are brave, enlightened
and sassy. They are walking clouds
and like clouds have forgotten
how to jump. As lambs they new.
Lambs jump because in their innocence
they still find grass exciting.
Some turf is better for tiptoeing
say the lambs. Springy meadows
have curves which invite fits
of bouncing and heel-kicking
to turn flocks of lambs
into demented white spuds boiling in the pot.
Then there is a French style of being a lamb
which involves show and a special touch
at angling the bucking legs. Watch carefully
next time: Lambs love to demonstrate - 
you won't have to inveigle.
Eventually, of course, lambs grow trousers
and a blast of wool
which keeps them anchored to the sward.
Then grass is first and foremost
savoury, not palpable.
I prefer the grown sheep: even when damp
she is brave, enlightened and sassy,
her eye a kaleidoscope of hail and farewell,
her tail her most eloquent organ of gesture.
When she speaks, it is to tell me
that she is under a spell, polluted.
Her footwear has been stoled
and the earth rots her feet.
In reality she walks across the sky
upside down in special pumps.

Jo Shapcott (1988) In: Electroplating the Baby. pub. BloodAxe Books