Have you any wool?
In praise of the humble sheep.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Yorkshire, UK.
Let’s face it: sheep get a bad rap.
To call a human being a sheep is to imply that, at best, she goes with the flow, and at worst, she’s a spineless crowd-follower who, as the top Urban Dictionary entry has it, “mindlessly emulates anything and everything in the name of fame/recognition.” The non-urban dictionary agrees: Merriam-Webster defines the appellation as “a timid docile person, especially one easily influenced or led.” Taking the negative connotations even further, its example sentence is: “He came to see that the members of the cult were sheep who naively went along with whatever their leader dictated.” Not to mention the word sheepish, which is alternately defined as meek, timid, stupid, or ashamed.
Poor sheep. They don’t deserve such slander. After all, schools of fish move in perfect unison, but we don’t call them mindless, we call them “mesmerizing.” So why should the innocent sheep—group traveler, dog fearer, harmless grass muncher—be the target of such disdain?
I personally have had a great fondness for sheep ever since I first watched the English countryside whizz by through a car window, the summer I turned 10. Everywhere we drove, there they were: crossing hedge-lined roads in the Cotswolds, dotting the slopes of the South Downs, tranquilly grazing behind chain-link fences near the motorway to Heathrow, and even being herded by actual sheepdogs and a crook-wielding shepherd in the Scottish highlands. The puffy, fuzzy, silly-looking animals, with their spindly legs and smiling faces, amused and charmed me. In fact, I’d never seen anything quite like them. In the northeastern US, you’re likely to see cows and horses grazing beyond sturdy fences, but sheep are seldom among their farm-mates. In the UK, on the other hand, you can hardly drive a mile without spotting a flock—sometimes numbering in the hundreds, often straying directly into the road, and always, perpetually, without cessation, eating grass.
For those interested in facts: there are about 10,000 breeds of domestic sheep, as well as five or six wild breeds. They vary in color, shape, size, diet, and habits, just like other species. And they’re the source of many delightful products, including feta, ricotta, Romano, and Roquefort cheese—not to mention the wool that knitters like me use for crafting. In the US, they even have a festival circuit: “sheep and wool” festivals are held annually in several states, drawing attendees from all over the country. (I made the acquaintance of a charming sheep at the Rhinebeck festival several years ago.)
Meanwhile, in the UK and Ireland, they’re the inspiration for a wide range of merchandise.
On my first UK adventure 26 years ago, I purchased a palm-sized stuffed animal, christened him Percy, and began what would become an ever-growing collection of stuffed, carved, painted, and otherwise manufactured sheep.
Every one of my subsequent trips there has yielded a new ovine souvenir.
These journeys have also yielded many more real-life sheep encounters.
At the base of Glastonbury Tor.
Near the Brontë Parsonage on the Yorkshire Moors.
In a pasture I stumbled into after taking a wrong turn in the town of Helmsley.
And, closer to home, at Clatter Ridge Farm in Connecticut, where I escaped the ravages of the spring of 2020 by visiting the newly arrived lambs.
So, clearly, I’m a sheep person. If you know me, you’re probably aware of this. But it wasn’t until my most recent trip to England, in the summer of 2019, that I finally realized why.
It happened at the Castlerigg Stone Circle, which sits atop a hill in the heart of the Lake District and is one of the most stunningly beautiful places I’ve ever been. I was surprised (though I really shouldn’t have been) to discover that immediately surrounding the ancient monument was a set of pastures populated with dozens and dozens of sheep. In fact, the gate to one such pasture was hanging open and several intrepid sheep had ventured into the field that housed the circle—where a few intrepid children began to chase them.
(If I had read the website carefully before going, I might have noticed the fine print: “Please be aware that the site is grazed by sheep.” And why shouldn’t it be? They’re a cost-free lawnmowing service.)
Several yards away from the stones, I climbed to the top of a low wall overlooking one of the pastures and stood for several moments gazing at the grazing animals.
I watched them chew and blink and trot around. I noticed how silly they look when they lie down, their legs bending at odd angles with no apparent coordination. I realized that they really don’t do very much except eat, sleep, and poop. They’re not smart like elephants or sly like foxes, and they don’t say a whole lot, except for the occasional maa. So why, I thought, had these unassuming mammals held a place in my heart for so long?
And then it hit me. It’s very simple, really. Sheep are peaceful.
The only sound I heard in that field, beyond that occasional maa, was the quiet swish of grass being chewed. It was relaxing, watching them live their simple little lives, smiling their illusive smiles. Even the solitary black sheep seemed content (and not at all ostracized). They might not be the most crusading of creatures, but their homely innocence makes them lovable. Instead of deriding their tendency to flock together—and don’t birds do that too, after all?—perhaps we should appreciate their sense of community.
Or maybe I just like them because they’re cute.
(After all, it’s as good a reason as any to like children.)
Sheep are described as “ruminant” because, like cows, they chew their cud. But the word also means “a contemplative person, given to meditation.” As I descended the hill that day, passing more white-dotted pastures as I went, I admired the sheep most for their authenticity: for continuing to ruminate, contemplate, and live in harmony, no matter the foibles of the humans that surround them.