The sheep’s originby@jeanhenrifabre

The sheep’s origin

by Jean-Henri FabreJune 17th, 2023
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“Concerning the cat’s origin there are surmises, probabilities; concerning the sheep’s origin nothing is yet known. But if we are ignorant from what wild species the sheep descends, we are at least certain it came to us from Asia, where man has raised flocks of these useful animals from the earliest recorded times.” “The East gave us the dog, cat, and sheep,” Jules here interposed, “and from what you said in some of our former talks, I got the impression that the other domestic animals also came from Asia.”
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Our Humble Helpers: Familiar Talks on the Domestic Animals by Jean-Henri Fabre, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. SHEEP


“Concerning the cat’s origin there are surmises, probabilities; concerning the sheep’s origin nothing is yet known. But if we are ignorant from what wild species the sheep descends, we are at least certain it came to us from Asia, where man has raised flocks of these useful animals from the earliest recorded times.”

“The East gave us the dog, cat, and sheep,” Jules here interposed, “and from what you said in some of our former talks, I got the impression that the other domestic animals also came from Asia.”

“The Asiatic origin of our oldest known and most important domestic animals is a truth that all the records of history affirm without a shadow of doubt. We owe to the East the ox, horse, donkey, sheep, goat, pig, dog, cat, hen. Civilization, in fact, had its cradle in the lands of central Asia, where already there were flourishing peoples versed in sheep-raising and agriculture when in our western countries man, still plunged in wretched barbarism, lived only by the chase and hunted the bear and urus with his stone weapons.”

“Then those ancient peoples of the East came and settled here and brought the first domestic animals with them?” asked Jules.

“That is just how it happened, and hence the Asiatic origin of our oldest domestic animals.”

“Doubtless the sheep was with the new-comers?”

“Very likely; for its habits to-day show the sheep to have been dependent on man a very long time. No species has undergone so radical a change from its primitive character; and this indicates a very early domestication.

“In the beginning, when it wandered wild on the grassy plateaus of Asia, the sheep must have had means of defense against its enemies, since otherwise the species would have become extinct. It was not enough for it to crop the greensward; it must also have been able to hold its own when menaced, or at least to escape from danger by flight. The other domestic species shared the same risks as a necessary concomitant of freedom; but all knew how to defend themselves, and all, under man’s protection, have nevertheless kept the use of their own means of protection. Left to itself, the dog, by its courage and its murderous jaws, valiantly copes with any assailant; the horse flees at full gallop or breaks the enemy’s bones with a vigorous kick; the cat climbs trees and from her lofty fortress braves the foe; bulls group themselves in a circle, the weak ones in the center, the strong at the circumference, with horns pointing out, and woe then to any creature that dares to approach; the goat overthrows the aggressor by butting with lowered head. What [265]can the sheep do in its turn when in danger? Nothing. With no thought of defending itself, imbecile and stupid, it waits for the wolf to come and devour it.

“Look at a flock of sheep, startled by some unusual noise. They rush headlong, bewildered with fear; they crowd together, press against one another, lower their heads to the ground, then await, motionless, the issue of the event. The wolf, if it be a wolf that has caused the panic, has only to choose its victim out of this compact mass: there will be no thought of resistance or flight. What would become of the poor creatures if shepherds and dogs were not there to protect them? In a few days they would all perish, sacrificing their last drop of blood to the wolf. See them again in the open country in bad weather. They press close to one another and refuse to budge, enduring rain and snow, shivering with wet and cold, while not one of them so much as thinks of seeking shelter. Their stupidity is such that they do not even seem to notice how unfavorable their situation is; they come to a standstill wherever they may happen to be, and obstinately stay there. To make them go and to conduct them to a more suitable spot, the shepherd is obliged to chase them before him and give them a leader taught to walk in front.

“Certainly, in its primitive freedom the sheep could not have been the actual animal of our folds; it must have possessed the qualities necessary to sustain its existence; it must have found in itself [266]means of protection and must at least have imitated the goat, which resolutely faces danger, or, if too weak, scales with unerring foot the ledges of rock and there takes refuge. The sheep, as we have it to-day, is absolutely incapable of living without man’s protection; left to itself, the whole species would soon perish, the victim of carnivorous animals and inclement weather. To lose thus all its native instincts and descend to the lowest degree of stupidity, how many centuries of servitude must it not have undergone? I would not venture to say; but at least I see that, after the dog, the sheep was one of the first animals tamed by man.

“No other species, the dog alone excepted, has undergone so complete a transformation at our hands. Let me tell you some of the strange results obtained. In Africa, Madagascar, and India there is found a breed of sheep in which the tail, loaded with a heavy mass of fat on each side, right and left, is transformed into a sort of ponderous battledore, broader at its base than the body itself. The weight of this inconvenient appendage amounts to and even exceeds thirty pounds.”

“Inconvenient appendage I should say it would be,” remarked Louis. “The sheep cannot walk very easily with that heavy battledore knocking against its hocks. The tallow from that tail would make a good many candles, but it is a very troublesome sort of treasure when one has to run away from a wolf.”

“This breed is called the broad-tailed sheep. [267]Other sheep, particularly in southern Russia, have tails of moderate size, like the tails of our sheep, but very long so that they drag on the ground.”

“Again a hindrance when fleeing from the wolf,” Jules observed. “In its primitive state the sheep certainly had neither this long trailing tail catching in the bushes, nor that other one in the shape of a heavy load of tallow.”

“Neither had it the singular horns that it sometimes bears to-day. Some sheep have horns of excessive length and twisted in long spirals that sometimes stand erect on the top of the forehead, and sometimes point sidewise. Those weapons are more threatening than serviceable: they needlessly overburden the head and are a serious source of annoyance to the animal when it has to pass through a thicket of underbrush. As if to hamper themselves still more in the brambles, other breeds wear an addition to this inconvenient ornament. The sheep of the island of Cyprus have two pairs of horns, one standing straight up on the forehead, the other curving back behind the ears. Those of the Faroe Islands have three pairs, all arranged spirally and pointing backward. Our sheep, as a rule, have only two horns, rather small and making barely one turn at the sides of the head; apparently that is how the primitive species wore them. In fact the greater part of our flocks is composed of entirely hornless sheep. It is best for the animal, which is thus relieved of a useless load.

“These horns, double or triple in number, and [268]twisting in curious fashion, this tail so long that it trails on the ground, or else swollen with tallow and broad beyond measure, while showing us what singular modifications the body of the sheep is capable of, are of no use to us whatever. It is much to be preferred that the animal, profiting by the care we bestow upon it, should gain in weight and furnish more abundant food material. The English, who are great meat-eaters, were the first to ask themselves this question: how to make the sheep an abundant source of mutton chops and legs of mutton, or, in other words, how to increase to the utmost the proportion of it that can be eaten and at the same time diminish or even reduce to nothing that which cannot?

“A celebrated breeder, a benefactor to humanity—Bakewell was his name—solved the problem in England about a century ago. He said to himself: The sheep that I want as a producer of legs of mutton must have no horns, for these useless ornaments would mean so much pure loss in the total weight of the animal; the food required for the growth and maintenance of the horns would be better employed in producing flesh. For the same reason it should have only just enough wool to clothe it and protect it from the cold. The bones I cannot eliminate, the more’s the pity, as in their place I should prefer something of greater nutritive value. But as a matter of fact they are necessary to the animal: they are the indispensable framework for the flesh. If I cannot eliminate them, the bones shall at least be light, [269]thin, reduced in weight and size. When the leg of mutton is served at table, the knife must be able to penetrate it like a ball of butter and find in the center only a small, hard drum-stick. I will reduce in like manner all that is not meat and leave the sheep only what is strictly necessary for the functions of life.”

“And that came to pass as the breeder wished?” asked Jules.

“That came to pass just as Bakewell foresaw. In his sheepfolds the animal was transformed into an opulent source of meat, such as had never been seen before; it became a pair of enormous legs of mutton and a pair of enormous shoulders, led to pasture by a small head on four thin legs.”

“With large mutton chops mixed in?” Emile inquired.

“To be sure. A few figures will show you the importance of the result obtained. The gross weight of our ordinary sheep averages thirty kilograms, representing about twenty kilograms net of meat. The Leicester sheep, as the perfected breed developed by Bakewell’s exertions is called, weighs from sixty to one hundred and sometimes one hundred and fifty kilograms; and its net yield in meat varies from fifty to one hundred kilograms; that is, at the very lowest, two and a half times as much meat as our common sheep produces, and at the highest, which is exceptional, I admit, five times as much.”

“Then man can do what he likes with his domestic animals to change them as he pleases?” asked Louis.

Leicester Sheep

“He does not do exactly as he likes, for the organization is from its very nature bounded by definite limits which no effort of ours can set aside; but by holding one end constantly in view and bending every exertion toward its attainment he can do much. The great means used by Bakewell on the breeding of sheep, and utilized since for the improvement of various other domestic animals, consists above all in selection, which I have already told you something about in speaking of the dog. Selection is called into play when the breeder singles out and sets apart for the propagation of the species those individuals that show in the highest degree the qualities he desires. These qualities, however feeble at first, are capable of great development in the course of several generations; for the offspring inherit the parents’ qualities, keep them, and add to this inheritance certain qualities of their own.”[271]

“You compared that to a snowball increasing in size as it rolls,” said Jules.

“Yes, my friend; the succeeding generations, always chosen from among the best, are the successive layers that bring their complement to the increase of the ball.”

“The Leicester sheep must have acted on the snowball wonderfully, to increase its weight from thirty kilograms to one hundred and fifty.”

“I admit that such a transformation is not brought about in a single year, and that Bakewell must have had great confidence in his method to devote his whole life to the pursuit of the end foreseen by his genius.”

“What is this famous Leicester sheep like?” asked Emile.

“Its trunk is all of a size, almost cylindrical. The head is small, bald, and without horns. It is supported by a neck so slender and short that the head appears to spring directly from the trunk.”

“To judge by the picture you are showing us, one would say that the head came out of a hole made in the middle of the fleece.”

“That comes from the smallness of the neck. The wool, long and coarse, takes the form of pointed locks hanging down and not very close together, so that the whole fleece weighs much less than one would suppose from the size of the animal. The four legs are thin and naked. All the bones in short, are remarkably light, having only enough solidity to support the animal’s massive bulk of flesh.”[272]

“Is this breed found in France?” Louis asked.

“With us it is represented by the Flemish breed, raised in Flanders, Normandy, and Poitou. It is the most corpulent of the French varieties, furnishing sheep that weigh as much as sixty kilograms, and more. In the second class for size comes the Picardy breed, scattered over Picardy, Brie, and Beauce. The sylvan breed of Touraine, Sologne, Bourgogne, Anjou, in short a great part of central France, is smaller still. It is remarkable for the fineness of its wool and the excellence of its flesh. By its side may be placed the Provence breed, occupying Roussillon, Provence, and Languedoc. Immense flocks of this variety graze during the winter in the salt marshes bordering the Mediterranean, notably in the vast pebbly plain of Crau and in the island of Camargue which the forks of the Rhone form at the mouth of that river. After the cold weather is past, these flocks move up to the high mountains of Dauphiny, where they pass the whole summer out of doors. I will come back in a few moments to their interesting migrations.

“Besides meat, the sheep furnishes us wool, which is still more important, since it is the best material for our clothing. Other animals, the ox and pig for example, feed us with their flesh; only the sheep can clothe us. With wool we make mattresses and weave cloth, flannel, serge, in fact all the different fabrics best adapted for protecting us from the cold. It is far and away the most suitable material for clothing; cotton, despite its importance, takes only [273]second place; and silk, with all its fine qualities, is very inferior to wool for actual service. The sheep’s coat, more than anything else, we use for clothing; we cover ourselves with its fleece after converting it by spinning and weaving into magnificent cloth.”

“All the same,” objected Emile, “wool is not in the least beautiful when it is on the animal’s back; it is dirty, badly combed, often completely covered with filth. To be changed into the fleece suitable for cloth it must go through a good many processes.”

“A good many, indeed. We will speak only of the first, for the others would lead us too far from our subject.

“As it is found on the sheep, the wool is soiled by the sweat of the animal and by dust, which together form a layer of dirt called natural grease. An energetic washing is necessary to remove these impurities. The best way is to wash the sheep itself before shearing. The flock is driven to the edge of a stream, not so cold as to endanger the health of the animals, and there each sheep is seized in turn by men who plunge it into the water and rub and squeeze the fleece with their hands until the grease has disappeared and the water runs clear from the tufts of wool. That is what is called washing on the back, because the wool is cleaned on the body itself, on the animal’s back.

“At other times the sheep is shorn without having been washed first, just as it comes out of the fold, with all its coating of dust and sweat. The wool [274]thus obtained is called greasy wool, while the washed fleece is known as greaseless wool. The greasy wool is too dirty to be used as it is, even for making mattresses; it is washed in a stream of running water, and then it is like the wool taken from a washed sheep.

“To shear a sheep, the animal is tied fast by all four legs to keep it from moving and perhaps getting cut during the operation; then it is placed on a table about as high as a man is tall, and with large, wide-bladed shears the wool is clipped off as close as possible to the skin without at the same time cutting the poor animal. As the locks of wool are naturally curly and entangled, the fleece comes off all in one piece.

“Sheep are white, brown, and black. White wool can be dyed any shade, from the lightest to the darkest, whereas black or brown will only take dark colors. White wool, therefore, is always preferred to any other; but however beautiful it may be after all impurities have been removed by washing, it is still far from possessing the degree of whiteness that it should have if it is to be used without dyeing. Accordingly it is bleached by being exposed in a closed room to the suffocating vapor that comes from burning sulphur.

“Wool varies in value according to the sheep that produced it; there are different degrees of coarseness and fineness and length. The best wool, that which is reserved for the finest stuffs, comes from a breed of sheep raised principally in Spain and [275]known by the name of merino. This breed has a squat, short, thick body, legs strong and short, large head furnished with stout horns that fall in a spiral behind the ear, woolly forehead, and a very snub nose. The skin, fine and pink, forms at different parts of the body, chiefly around the neck, ample folds which give room for additional fleece. Wool covers the whole body, except the muzzle, from the edge of the hoofs to a rim around the eyes. It is fine, curly, elastic, and short. The grease with which it is impregnated is very abundant, so that the dust sticking to it forms on the surface of the fleece a grayish crust, a sort of plate-armor, which splits open here and there with a slight crackling sound when the animal moves, and closes of itself when the animal is at rest. By washing, these impurities all disappear and merino wool then shows the whiteness of snow and has a softness that rivals silk.

“In Spain the merino flocks pass the winter in the fertile plains of the South, in a climate remarkable for its mildness. At the beginning of April they start for the high mountains of the North, which they reach after a journey of a month or six weeks. All through the summer they remain in the highland pastures, rich in savory greensward which the summer sun never dries up, and at the end of September they descend again to the plains of the South. These traveling flocks, changing from plain to mountain and from mountain to plain, according to the season, are called migratory flocks. Some of them [276]number as many as ten thousand animals, tended by fifty shepherds and as many dogs.”

“It must be very interesting,” said Jules, “to see those immense flocks in motion along the highways when they go to or from their mountain pasture.”

“What takes place in the south of France can give us some idea of this. I told you that the vast plains of the Mediterranean coast, the plains of Crau and Camargue, support flocks of considerable size, which emigrate to the mountains of Dauphiny when warm weather comes, and return home on the approach of cold.”

“Are those sheep merinos?” Jules asked.

“No, my friend: they are ordinary sheep; but, like the merinos, they travel alternately from the plain to the mountains and from the mountains to the plain; in a word, they are migratory flocks. Let us look at them on their return journey.

“At the head are the donkeys laden with clothing and provisions. Large and heavy bells hang from their collars, each collar being made of a big sheet of bent deal. If they spy a thistle beside the road, they turn out and with a grimace crop the savory mouthful with a movement of their lips, after which they at once return to their posts of file-leaders. In large panniers of plaited grass one of them carries the lambs born on the journey, too weak to follow the flock. The poor little things bleat, their heads nodding to the movements of their nags, and the mothers answer from the midst of the throng. Next come the ill-smelling, high-horned, flat-nosed, cross-eyed he-goats; [277]the bells attached to the wooden collars ring under their thick beards. After them come the she-goats, their heavy udders, swollen with milk, striking against their hams. By their side caper the giddy band of young kids and goats, already beginning to butt with their foreheads. Such is the vanguard.

“Who is this with holly stick cut from an alpine hedge and large drugget cloak draped over his shoulder? It is the head shepherd, the one responsible for the flock. At his heels come the rams, leaders of the stupid common sheep. Their horns, twisted into a pointed spiral, make three and four turns. They have deal collars like those of the he-goats and asses; but their large bells, sign of honor, have a wolf’s tooth for tongue. Tufts of red wool, another sign of distinction, are fastened to their fleece on the sides and back. In the midst of a cloud of dust comes now the main flock, its members crowded close together and bleating, their countless little hoofs striking the ground with a noise like that of a storm. In the rear straggle the loiterers, the lame, the crippled, the ewes accompanied by their lambs. These last, at the briefest stop, bend their knees, take the teat in their mouth, and, while their tail trembles and wriggles, butt the udder with their forehead to start the flow of milk. The shepherds bring up the rear, urging on the slow ones with their cries and giving orders to the dogs, their lieutenants that go and come on the flanks of the army and watch that none go astray. If all is in good order, the dogs [278]walk beside their masters, pensive, fully appreciating the seriousness of their functions, and perhaps thinking of the woods they came from, the dark woods where there are bears.”

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