THE WISDOM OF SHEEP AND OTHER ANIMALS
by Rosamund Young (Faber £14.99, 259pp)
There are 22million sheep in the UK, yet when we see them grazing in a field, or walk among them on a country stroll, few of us give them much thought. They’re not beautiful, like horses, or slightly scary, like cows. Calm and stolid, sheep are simply part of our landscape.
Growing up on a farm where her parents raised cows, pigs and hens, Rosamund Young always thought sheep were rather dull animals, devoid of personality. So when eventually she got round to having her own flock, they were a complete revelation.
‘Some are affectionate, others prone to headbutting. Some are determinedly self-sufficient, others seek our help when they need it. And some can be trusted to lead the flock home. They are as individual as we are,’ she asserts.
There are 22million sheep in the UK, yet when we see them grazing in a field, or walk among them on a country stroll, few of us give them much thought (stock photo)
Along with her brother and her partner Gareth (of whom more later), Young runs Kite’s Nest Farm, a pioneering organic farm in the Cotswolds. When the then Prince Charles decided to make his Highgrove estate completely organic, he made the announcement from Kite’s Nest, making friends along the way with a temperamental heifer called Catherine who, to everyone’s astonishment, calmly allowed the royal visitor to stroke her.
Young is passionate about cows — her 2017 book, The Secret Life Of Cows, was a surprise bestseller — and she is now equally entranced by sheep and their quirky ways.
Unlike cows, sheep won’t trample you if you walk near them: ‘It would take a huge event to make a sheep wish to harm or even threaten a person,’ she writes.
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They are good judges of character and are particularly drawn to children. ‘Tiny people approach and the sheep stand still — the same sheep that wander off, grazing singlemindedly, when I want to get a closer look at them.’
Sheep may seem placid and unemotional but they are prone to sudden bursts of affection, and every now and then one will decide it wants to be best friends with Young. ‘I find it waiting patiently by my side, having appeared from nowhere, and the trusting bond is sealed. I could decide to befriend a sheep but it wouldn’t work. They are the ones who decide who to trust.’
When she had been off sick for almost three months, her flock greeted her with joy.
‘They positively mobbed me on my return, looks of disbelief in their eyes… as if they had concluded I had died, but were keen to show me how glad they were to be wrong.’
Sheep are intelligent enough to know when to ask for help, using body language, eye contact and the occasional deep baa to express themselves. As a species they are ‘very brave and skilled at not appearing to be in pain, and thus vulnerable to predators’, but when a ewe is having trouble giving birth, she can convey this with ‘a calm stare speaking volumes, every shepherd in the world would have understood exactly what it meant’.
Do sheep feel empathy? Young has noticed that if a sheep goes lame, or finds itself tangled up in brambles and can’t keep up with the flock, a ‘friend’ will hang around to keep it company.
They’re not beautiful, like horses, or slightly scary, like cows. Calm and stolid, sheep are simply part of our landscape (stock photo)
On one occasion, when Young had hurt her knee and was hopping around in agony, a sheep that she had handreared as a lamb ‘left her hay and came to stare up into my face and would only resume eating when I had convinced her I was fine’.
Made up of short chapters on aspects of farm life, from the sheep and cows to the abundant wildlife, this is a delightful book to dip into.
But it’s not all about animals; there is even romance.
One evening Gareth, the quiet lodger who rented a room in her farmhouse, asked Young if he could come and watch her milk the cows.
The milking machine had broken down, and in the time it took Young to fetch her brother to come and fix it, Gareth had mended the machine and milked the cow. Young was smitten. Well, who wouldn’t be?
Young doesn’t address the morality of killing and eating these animals, so trusting and so full of character, but makes it clear that the humane — one could almost say loving — way that they are treated on her farm means they have a happy, stress-free life before they are slaughtered. One thing is certain: after reading this book, you will look at sheep in a different way.