Between 11,000 and 9,000 BCE, the Ancient Mesopotamians started selectively breeding wild sheep, making them the first animals to be domesticated for food. Early farmers soon started selecting them for the quality of their wool as well.
Wool has been a prized British export since Roman times. By the 1300s, it was the backbone of the English economy, and landowners could measure their wealth in sheep. King Edward III got rich by levying a tax on every sack exported.
Wool became so important to the English that in 1337, when Edward III began the Hundred Years War against France, it was partly to protect the trade with Flemish weavers. In symbolic recognition of the importance of wool, Edward commanded his Lord Chancellor to sit in Parliament on a huge cushion stuffed with it. The Speaker of the House of Lords, who has replaced the Lord Chancellor, sits on the Wool Sack to this day.
In order to escape the horrors of the 100 Years War, many Flemish weavers settled in England and significantly increased the prosperity of towns such as Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham.
Between 1750 to around 1850, Scottish landowners evicted thousands of their arable-farming tenants to make way for more profitable sheep. Many Scots starved to death, and over 3.5 million were forced to emigrate.
One of the many ways Shakespeare's father made a living was as a brogger – an illegal trader in wool.
I must say that part of his speech was rather like being savaged by a dead sheep.
Here are the main differences between sheep and goats:
1. Goats have beards.
2. Sheep have a cleft in the middle of their upper lip; goats don’t.
3. Sheep tails hang down, while goat tails point upwards.
4. Many sheep breeds have no horns, while naturally hornless goats are rare.
5. Male goats stink when they’re in the mood for sex. Male sheep don’t.
Although sheep and goats are closely related in the subfamily Caprinae, hybrids (known as ‘geep’) are rare and almost always come from mating a ram with a nanny goat. There has only ever been one confirmed living hybrid produced from a ewe and a billy goat.
A 15th century law obliged all Englishmen to wear a woollen cap to church to demonstrate support for the wool trade.
In 1938 it was dis-covered that the Woolsack was stuffed with horsehair. It was replaced with commonwealth wool.
Calling the meat you get from a sheep meat ‘mutton’ dates back to the 13th century. Old English-speaking peasants would have used the same word (sceap) to mean both the animal in the field and the meat on the table, but when the time came to serve it up to their Old French-speaking Norman overlords, it became moton. That’s why English has a different word for an animal and the meat you get from it, for example: cow (cū) and beef (boef ); calf (cealf) and veal (veel); swine (swīn) and pork (porc); deer (dēor) and venison (venesoun).
In the industrial revolution, massive weaving mills were built, and we began to import wool from all over the British Empire to supply them. This lasted until man-made fibres and cheaper cloth from the Far East flooded into England in the early 1960s. Today the UK produces less than 2% of the world's raw wool. A quarter of all the world’s raw wool now comes from Australia.
In the 21st century, meat is now a more profitable part of the sheep industry than wool, even though far less sheep meat is eaten than chicken, pork or beef.
The most valuable sheep ever sold to date was a purebred Texel ram that fetched £231,000 at auction.
As ewes can only show willingness to mate by standing still, any lesbian sheep that might exist never get to meet up.
Bill Clinton was mauled by a sheep at the age of nine.
About 8% of male sheep are exclusively homosexual.
A statute of 1666 insisted that everyone should be buried in a woollen shroud of English manufacture or risk a fine of £5 (about £650 in today's money).
Wool is traditionally softened for making into cloth by trampling it in a barrel full of stale human urine. In the 19th century, fullers (as they were called) paid a penny a bucket, two pence if you were a Methodist because it would be alcohol free.
Unlike synthetic fibres, wool is naturally water resistant and can absorb up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling wet. It is also comparatively fire resistant and anti static.
In 2013, the village of Wool in Dorset had 160 of its sheep stolen.