About Sheep ~ Part One

Special report by Ewen Shearer for SheepOverboard.org

Sheep - there's nothing much to be said about them, except...

 "I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a man" ~ Charles Maurice Talleyrand

"Woolly usually horned ruminant mammal related to the goat" claims one poor excuse for an encyclopaedia. It's rather like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy encapsulating Earth and its inhabitants as "mostly harmless."

A little more useful is: "Horned ruminant mammal of the genus Ovis in the family Bovidae, especially the domesticated species Ovis aries, raised in many breeds for wool, edible flesh, milk, cheese and yogurt, or leather."

Yet another source made the startling claims "Sheep are a source of mutton, leather, oil, and (in captivity) dung. They can be encountered wild or obtained in trade from other citizens. Although sheep can be carried, they are very heavy, with a weight of 300 and bulk of 1." 

Hmm. It continues: "Note: Soloers and casual players should think carefully before beginning to raise sheep. Sheep can eat a lot of onions."

Relieved to discover this was the online manual for a computer game.

The Internet Wikipedia is far more business-like: "A sheep is any of several woolly ruminant quadrupeds, but most commonly the Domestic Sheep (Ovis aries), which probably descends from the wild moufflon of south-central and south-west Asia."

Thomson has beautifully described the appearance of the sheep, when bound to undergo the operation of being shorn of its wool:

Behold, where bound, and of its robe bereft
By needy man, that all-depending lord,
How meek, how patient, the mild creature lies!
What softness in his melancholy face,
What dumb complaining innocence appears!"

Other odd facts

Naturalists cannot explain the uses of some of the strange tails borne by animals. In the Egyptian and Syrian sheep, for instance, the tail grows so large, that it is not infrequently supported upon a sort of little cart, in order to prevent inconvenience to the animal. This monstrous appendage sometimes attains a weight of seventy, eighty, or even a hundred pounds.

The Lamb as Sacrifice

The number of lambs consumed in sacrifices by the Hebrews must have been very considerable. Two lambs "of the first year" were appointed to be sacrificed daily for the morning and evening sacrifice; and a lamb served as a substitute for the first-born of unclean animals, such as the ass, which could not be accepted as an offering to the Lord.

Every year, also, on the anniversary of the deliverance of the children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt, every family was ordered to sacrifice a lamb or kid, and to sprinkle some of its blood upon the door-posts, in commemoration of the judgment of God upon the Egyptians. It was to be eaten roasted, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, in haste, with the loins girded, the shoes on the feet, and the staff in the hand; and whatever remained until the morning was to be burnt.

The sheep was also used in the numerous special, individual, and national sacrifices ordered by the Jewish law. On extraordinary occasions, vast quantities of sheep were sacrificed at once; thus Solomon, on the completion of the temple, offered "sheep and oxen that could not be told nor numbered for multitude."

Shepherds and Their Flocks

The shepherd's crook is older than either the husbandman's plough or the warrior's sword. We are told that Abel was a keeper of sheep. Many passages in holy writ enable us to appreciate the pastoral riches of the first eastern nations; and we can form an idea of the number of their flocks, when we read that Jacob gave the children of Hamor a hundred sheep for the price of a field, and that the king of Israel received a hundred thousand every year from the king of Moab, his tributary, and a like number of rams covered with their fleece.

The tendency which most sheep have to ramble, renders it necessary for them to be attended by a shepherd. To keep a flock within bounds, is no easy task; but the watchful shepherd manages to accomplish it without harassing the sheep. In the Highlands of Scotland, where the herbage is scanty, the sheep-farm requires to be very large, and to be watched over by many shepherds. The farms of some of the great Scottish landowners are of enormous extent. "How many sheep have you on your estate?" asked Prince Esterhazy of the duke of Argyll. "I have not the most remote idea," replied the duke; "but I know the shepherds number several thousands."

Animals Named by Saxon, their Flesh by Norman
[Pertains to British history and English language]

The names of all our domestic animals are of Saxon origin; but it is curious to observe that Norman names have been given to the different sorts of flesh which these animals yield. How beautifully this illustrates the relative position of Saxon and Norman after the Conquest (of England).

The Saxon hind had the charge of tending and feeding the domestic animals, but only that they might appear on the table of his Norman lord. Thus 'ox,' 'steer,' 'cow,' are Saxon, but 'beef' is Norman; 'calf' is Saxon, but 'veal' Norman; 'sheep' is Saxon, but 'mutton' Norman; so it is severally with 'deer' and 'venison,' 'swine' and 'pork,' 'fowl' and 'pullet.' 'Bacon,' the only flesh which, perhaps, ever came within his reach, is the single exception.

Varieties of sheep inhabiting the different regions of the earth have been reduced by Cuvier to three, or at most four, species:

  • Ovis Amman, or the Argali, the presumed parent stock of all the rest
  • Ovis Tragelaphus, the bearded sheep of Africa
  • Ovis Musmon, the Musmon of Southern Europe
  • Ovis Montana, the Mouflon of America, is believed by many naturalists that this last is so nearly identical with the Indian Argali as to be undeserving a separate place.

It is still a controversy to which of these three we are indebted for the many breeds of modern domestication; the Argali, however, by general belief, has been considered as the most probable progenitor of the present varieties.

Thank you Ms Beeton!

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