Life

Why we should all get to know a sheep 

It would benefit the world if we observed the creatures that live near us and tried to see ourselves as, at best, equal and certainly never superior

Lambs with their mother

The Wisdom of Sheep. Image: Rosamund Young

There are four rams on the farm at the moment: a Derbyshire Gritstone, a Romtex, a Shetland and a Lleyn – but the Lleyn doesn’t like other sheep and spends as much time as possible with the cattle. Somehow, all the cattle heard on the grapevine that this ram, hardly a tenth the size of our bull, had been forced to teach the bull a lesson for refusing to treat him as an equal. Now, all the cattle do just that. In winter, when we put hay in feed racks for them, the cattle all wait for the ram to choose where he wants to stand before clustering round him to eat. 

As Shakespeare tells us in As You Like It: “Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness.” 

The ram is gentle, but he can stand up for himself when the need arises. 

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Traditionally the life of a shepherd would have been a lonely one. Living for many months with no conversation or contact with other humans and following his sheep as they grazed, meandering over vast areas, searching for the sweetest grasses and the herbs they knew instinctively they needed. Shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night too, often using cunning and psychology to guide them into the fold, safer from wolves and other predators than they would have been in the open pasture – but not truly safe. The shepherd would have slept lightly, probably alerted by his faithful dogs if there was any hint of danger. 

The shepherd could not have managed without his dogs, but being able to engage with the personalities of the sheep would have benefitted both shepherd and sheep physically and emotionally. With no other distractions it would have been inevitable that the individual characteristics of the sheep would be apparent and their peculiar virtues would have enlivened the days.  

The more time you spend with any animal, the better you get to know and understand it, and the more likely it is that you will be able to realise if or when it needs your help. You will soon recognise the leaders within the flock who will help you lead the others to safety. 

The lone shepherds were certainly alone, but maybe after all they were not lonely.  

A lamb exploring its surroundings
Image: Rosamund Young

We currently have two sheep on the farm who are certain they are cats and they absolutely hate other sheep. They were abandoned by their mothers and reared on a bottle, curling up on the door mat with the cats every day until they discovered grass, from which point on, of course, they needed no one. 

Sheep adore grass: it is addictive and magnetic and sustains them absolutely. They like to nibble flowers and trees and hedges and crab apples if given the opportunity, but grass is enough if nothing else is available. 

Most of England is covered in grass, and land that is too steep to grow crops grows grass – and grass feeds ruminants like cattle and sheep. They digest the grass that humans cannot eat and convert it into meat and milk. 

Every living thing we see in the world today evolved over millions of years and everything has its role and occupies its own niche. Only people do harm. Only people invent things that do not biodegrade. Only people stockpile non-essential items, using up the earth’s resources. 

Observing without prejudice is the key. Seeing the way all the billions of species fit into the whole-world puzzle, taking and using only what they need. Except people. 

But we exist, we humans, and so it would benefit the world if we all observed the creatures that live near us and tried to see ourselves as, at best, equal and certainly never superior to any other living thing. 

Really useful observations can only be made on a small farm where a person has responsibility for the animals and the time to spend with them. Or, of course, in a situation where a shepherd almost becomes a sheep, living with them month after month. 

There’s a story, apocryphal maybe, about an English farmer emigrating to Australia and farming his sheep there. After being there for nearly a year, he telephoned the local contract shearer to ask him to come to shear his flock. The shearer asked how many and the reply was 60. “You mean 60,000?” “No, 60.” After a pause, the contractor said: “May I have their names, please?” 

The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals by Rosamund Young is out now (Faber, £14.99) 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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