SHEEP, PLAIN AND COLOURED

In the Thames Valley there are two very distinguished breeds of sheep - the Cotswolds at the head of the watershed, and the Oxford Downs, near Wallingford. Wallingford lamb is supposed to be the best in the market. There are also the Berkshire Downs sheep, but these are, I think, more obviously cross-bred, or else of the Hampshire breed. The Cotswold sheep are probably a very old breed. They are evidently the original of the woolly "baa-lamb" of the nursery, with long, fleecy wool. The Oxford Downs are a short-woolled sheep. One of the flocks of this breed has been improved by selection, mainly in regard to fecundity, to such an extent that I believe twins are the normal proportion among the lambs. The shepherds, as elsewhere on the large down farms, form a race apart. They are not always on the best of terms with the ordinary farm labourers, I notice. "The shepherd be a working against I," is a complaint I sometimes hear. The real reason is that the shepherd thinks, above all things, of his flock, and of finding them food. The feud between the keeper of sheep and the raiser of crops dates from the days of Cain and Abel.

I heard lately from a gentleman who very frequently occupies the honourable position of judge or steward at the leading agricultural shows, that it is proposed that in future no sheep sent to shows are to be allowed to have their coats rouged, and the judges are in future to make their decisions uninfluenced by the beauties of cosmetics. This decision comes as a great blow to the skilled hands in the business of the "improver," who, by long experience and a nice knowledge of the weaknesses of judges, had brought the art of "making up" pedigree sheep of any particular breed to something very nearly approaching the ideal of perfection. Their wool was clipped so artistically as to resemble a bed of moss, and this being elegantly tinted with rouge or saffron, the sheep assumed the hue of the pink or primrose, according to taste and fancy. The reason for the demand which now requires that the champions of the flock shall be shown "plain" and not coloured is not too technical to appeal to the general public. Those who know the acute anxiety with which the exhibitors of prize animals, from fancy mice to shorthorns, watch them "coming on" as the hour for the show approaches, will treat tenderly, even if they cannot condone, the little weaknesses into which the uses of rouge and saffron led them. When a Southdown which ought to have a contour smooth and rounded as a pear still showed aggravating little pits and hollows where there ought to be none, nothing was easier than to postpone clipping those undesirable hollows till the moment before the show, or if there were bumps where there should be no bumps, to shave the wool down close over them. Left to Nature, the newly-clipped wool would show a different tint from the rest of the fleece; but the rouge or saffron then applied made all things even, to the eye, and the judges to find out whether the animals were "level" or not had to feel them all over. Feeling every six inches of some two hundred sheep's backs is very tiring work; so the judges have struck against rouge, and there is an end of it.

One night, some years ago, an extraordinary thing happened on both lines of downs by the Thames, near Reading, and also along the Chilterns. Most of the flocks over a very large area took a panic and burst from their folds, and next morning thousands of sheep were wandering all over the hills. I feel certain that there must have been an earthquake shock that night. Nothing else could have accounted for such a wide and general stampede. The last authenticated earthquake shock in the South Midlands took place hereabouts in 1775, and was noted at Lord Macclesfield's Castle of Shirbourne, where the water in the moat was seen to rise against the wall of one of the towers.[1]

Are our domestic sheep, except for their highly artificial development of wool, really very different from their wild ancestors, the active and flat-coated animals which still feed on the stony mountain-tops? The ways of sheep, not only in this country but abroad, show that a part at least of their wild nature is still strong in them; and if type photographs of all the representative domestic animals of our time, had been possible a few centuries ago, it may be that even in this country the shape of the animal would be found to have been far nearer to the sheep of St. Kilda and of the wild breeds than it is to-day.

In one of the old Cloth Halls of Norfolk are two fine reliefs in plaster, one showing the Argo, bringing the golden fleece, the other a flock of sheep of the day, with a saint in Bishop's mitre and robes preaching to them. The shepherd, in a smock, is spinning wool with a distaff; and the sheep feeding around him, though carefully modelled, are quite unlike any of the modern breeds. Many of the domestic sheep of hot countries are more slender and less woolly than the wild sheep of the mountains. The black-and-white Somali sheep, for instance, are as smooth as a pointer dog.