Book Review: A rare breed of shear delight
Counting Sheep - Philip Walling
Is there anything so deceptive as a sheep? That blank look, the moany bleat, all that gawping into the middle distance: this is a silly duffer of a beast, you might think. You are deceived. Sheep are sensitive, cunning, tough, occasionally devious, adventurous, resourceful animals. They are also, as Philip Walling's delightful book makes clear, integral to the economic and social history of Britain.
I grew up on a hill farm under the rule of my mother's mantra: "The animals come first." Waking to find a hypothermic lamb wearing a bath towel like a djellaba and bleating as it stumbled around my room, defecating, seemed normal.
We did whatever it took to keep the feeblest little stumbler alive. I accrued an impression of ovine history: the ancient Britons and Celts had tough, scrappy sheep, then the Romans turned up with longwoolled animals and revolutionised the national flock – English wool became de rigueur in Roman society; Florence based its textiles industry on it. Wool was the white gold of the British economy in the Middle Ages.
Even now canny Britons make fortunes out of sheep. Some Irish developers have been keen breeders of rams and sheep and during the boom frequently shelled out thousands for top animals.
Sheep, Britain and Ireland are a natural fit: "the most efficient extractors of energy from natural vegetation of all the ruminant animals," Walling explains, living on a land with a greater climactic range in a smaller area, from north to south and sea level to mountaintop, than almost anywhere else. Every landscape has its own breed of locally adapted animals. Crossing these allows farmers to raise profitable beasts.
Although 'Counting Sheep' is engrossed in the story of breeding, its appeal lies in anecdotes, details and little-known histories. A spinster, for example, was exactly that: without a man to help make money, spinning wool was many women's only option.
Grass grows from the tip, so a sheep grazing (and manuring) a sward encourages more stems and leaves, improving the crop. I knew that a ewe could be persuaded to adopt a lamb when her own had died by clothing the foster child with the skin of the deceased. I did not know that dousing the lamb with Chanel No 5 could disguise its scent and reset the mother's affections.
The Einstein of shepherding was Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire, born in 1725, who saw the end coming for profitable wool and turned to meat, creating a breed with the future in its broad rump. He pioneered stock rotation and hiring out rams.
The book's hero, if not the herdwick breed, to which Walling devotes his best chapter, is a Welsh collie called Carlo. He made his own way back along the drovers' roads from Kent to west Wales, wearing the harness belonging to the pony Carlo's master had sold in Kent before going home by coach, to which was affixed a sign asking innkeepers to afford the hound such nourishment as it might require.
Life, death, sex and cash: 'Counting Sheep' deserves its place on the bookshelf of any lover of the countryside. It is also a counter to George Monbiot's 'Feral', which calls for sheep to be turfed off the uplands in favour of wolves. For the first time in history we are turning productive acres into wilderness, Walling writes. Where will we get our food in future?