About Sheep ~ Part Two

Extract from Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management c~1861

This valuable animal belongs to the class under the ox – the Mammalia; to the order of Rumenantia, or cud-chewing animal; to the tribe of Capridae, or horned quadrupeds; and the genus Ovis, or the “sheep.”

The sheep may be either with or without horns; when present, however, they have always this peculiarity, that they spring from a triangular base, are spiral in form, and lateral, at the side of the head, in situation.


The generic peculiarities of the sheep are the triangular and spiral form of the horns, always larger in the male when present, but absent in the most cultivated species; having sinuses at the base of all the toes of the four feet, with two rudimentary hoofs on the fore legs, two inguinal teats to the udder, with a short tail in the wild breed, but of varying length in the domesticated; have no incisor teeth in the upper jaw, but in their place a hard elastic cushion along the margin of the gum, on which the animal nips and breaks the herbage on which it feeds; in the lower jaw there are eight incisor teeth and six molars on each side of both jaws, making in all 32 teeth.


The fleece of the sheep is of two sorts, either short and harsh, or soft and woolly; the wool always preponderating in an exact ratio to the care, attention, and amount of domestication bestowed on the animal. The fleece consists of two coats, one to keep the animal warm, the other to carry off the water without wetting the skin. The first is of wool, the weight and fineness of which depend on the quality of the pasture and the care bestowed on the flock; the other of hair, that pierces the wool and overlaps it, and is in excess in exact proportion to the badness of the keep and inattention with which the animal is treated.


The more removed from the nature of the animal is the food on which it lives, the more difficult is the process of assimilation, and the more complex the chain of digestive organs; for it must be evident to all, that the same apparatus that converts flesh into flesh, is hardly calculated to transmute grass into flesh.

As the process of digestion in carnivorous animals is extremely simple, these organs are found to be remarkably short, seldom exceeding the length of the animal’s body; while, where digestion is more difficult, from the unassimilating nature of the aliment, as in the ruminant order, the alimentary canal, as is the case with the sheep, is twenty-seven times the length of the body.

The digestive organ in all ruminant animals consists of four stomachs, or, rather, a capacious pouch, divided by doorways and valves into four compartments, called, in their order of position, the Paunch, the Reticulum, the Omasum, and the Abomasum. When the sheep nibbles the grass, and is ignorantly supposed to be eating, he is, in fact, only preparing the raw material of his meal, in reality only mowing the pasture, which, as he collects, is swallowed instantly, passing into the first receptacle, the paunch, where it is surrounded by a quantity of warm saliva, in which the herbage undergoes a process of maceration or softening, till the animal having filled this compartment, the contents pass through a valve into the second or smaller bag, – the reticulum, where, having again filled the paunch with a reserve, the sheep lies down and commences that singular process of chewing the cud, or, in other words, masticating the food he has collected.

By the operation of a certain set of muscles, a small quantity of this softened food from the reticulum, or second bag, is passed into the mouth, which it now becomes the pleasure of the sheep to grind under his molar teeth into a soft smooth pulp, the operation being further assisted by a flow of saliva, answering the double purpose of increasing the flavour of the aliment and promoting the solvency of the mass. Having completely comminuted and blended this mouthful, it is swallowed a second time; but instead of returning to the paunch or reticulum, it passes through another valve into a side cavity, – the omasum, where, after a maceration in more saliva for some hours, it glides by the same contrivance into the fourth pouch, – the abomasum, an apartment in all respects analogous to the ordinary stomach of animals, and where the process of digestion, begun and carried on in the previous three, is here consummated, and the nutrient principle, by means of the bile, eliminated from the digested aliment.

Such is the process of digestion in sheep and oxen. No other animal, even of the same order, possesses in so remarkable a degree the power of converting pasture into flesh as the Leicestershire sheep; the South Down and Cheviot, the two next breeds in quality, are, in consequence of the greater vivacity of the animal’s nature, not equal to it in that respect, though in both the brain and chest are kept subservient to the greater capacity of the organs of digestion.

Besides the advantage of increased bulk and finer fleeces, the breeder seeks to obtain an augmented deposit of tissue in those parts of the carcase most esteemed as food, or, what are called in the trade “prime joints;” and so far has this been effected, that the comparative weight of the hind quarters over the fore has become a test of quality in the breed.

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