Domesticated sheep (Ovis aries) may only exist because of humans – but we, in our modern form, only exist because of sheep. After their first domestication in the Middle East and Central Asia around 9,000 bc, some time after dogs, reindeers and goats, all modern sheep can trace their lineage back to two ancestral breeds, one as yet unidentified and other, the tiny – and now endangered – mouflon (Ovis musimon). Sheep, even more than their close relatives the goats, were responsible for the greatest lifestyle shift in human history, the transition from hunter-gathering to farming. Goats were perfect for nomads, but sheep, because of their tendency to flock and their ability to graze on the toughest grass, allowed us to stay in one place. Sheep fertilised the ground they grazed on, allowing agriculture to flourish, and their flesh and milk gave us a break from hunting. Getting the best out of sheep meant they needed to be herded and guarded, leading to larger human settlements (and more work for the recently domesticated dog). Interestingly, the Latin for sheep, ovis, and the English ‘ewe’ both emerge from the Sanskrit avi, which has its roots in av meaning ‘to guard or protect’. Looking after sheep gave us civilisation.
It took 3,000 years for our ancestors to discover that by selectively breeding sheep, they could encourage their fluffy undercoat to grow longer than the bristly guard hairs (called ‘kemp’). The result was first felt and then wool, and suddenly humans had yarn, then looms and textiles. If sheep farming was the first industry, wool became the first great trade commodity. By the Middle Ages, wool drove the economies of Europe: the Renaissance was largely financed on the profits from the wool trade. Today, synthetic fibres have dramatically reduced wool production in Europe and America: 60% now comes from Australia, New Zealand and China.
To say a sheep has five legs doesn’t make it so.
There were seven sheep on Noah’s Ark. Only ‘unclean’ animals went in two by two.
A sheep’s cultural role was historically all about sacrifice. Sheep have invariably found themselves being offered up in thanks, or having to symbolise innocent victimhood. The sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam overflow with lambs, flocks and shepherds. More recently, sheep have become a byword for conformism and stupidity, which is not only ungrateful but wrong. Far from being dim, sheep have good memories: they can recognise faces of individual flock members up to two years later, as well as pictures of their shepherd. This facility has long been known by hill farmers, whose flocks have become ‘hefted’ to a particular territory. Shepherds and dogs initially teach them which ridges, boulders and streams mark the grazing boundaries. The ewes then teach this to lambs and it gets passed on from generation to generation, sometimes stretching back hundreds of years.
Soay sheep from St Kilda were isolated for 4,000 years and reverted to a feral state. They have to be peeled not shorn and stare in blank incomprehension at sheep dogs.
Dolly the sheep was the only successful clone of 276 attempts.
Japanese sheep go ‘mee’ but Korean sheep ‘meeeee’.
What is a sheep? This simple question is more than enough to have kept scientists occupied for hundreds of years, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Bill Clinton was mauled by a sheep at the age of eight.