For my first actual review for this site I’m going to review…a book. One on sheep funnily enough.
“Counting Sheep” by Philip Waller is an excellent read for anybody remotely interested in the sheep of Great Britain and their history.
Waller is a retired barrister who took to the law after a stint of farming Herdwicks in the Lake District. He deconstructs many of the myths around British sheep and their origins in the forensic manner you’d expect from Counsel. He casts a logical eye over many claims, especially the recurring one that many breeds of sheep swam ashore from a stricken ship in the Armada, and quietly yet deliberately bursts them.
The charm of the book for me though comes from what you don’t expect from the type of stuffed shirt that practice law up and down the country. It’s more what you would expect from the flat capped regulars at cattle marts; the unstinting belief that there is an element of sheep breeding which defies science and maths, recording and empirical research. He uses words like “character”, “nobility”, “terroir” and even “magic”. He has a firm belief that sheep breeds are of their domains, inextricably linked to the soil they graze on, such that sheep and landscape mould each other. Modern techniques try to overcome this link, working against the results of this virtually evolutionary change, but at what cost?
He talks of an animal’s spirit and attributes to outward manifestations of seemingly little commercial merit (especially horns, but also black noses and hooves) an indication of a secondary merit which is not immediately obvious or apparently linked to any commercial gain otherwise. This of course reflects the research done by Belyaev in Russia on the Silver Fox since the late 50s which shows that selecting for behavioural change over generations leads to physiological changes. In other words if you breed foxes that show tame behaviour the progeny eventually take on a dog like appearances; they developed variants that are smaller, have raised tails and spotty coats.
Waller states that breeding continental sheep that are like blocks of meat wouldn’t hold the same delight for him as keeping his idiosyncratic escape artist Herdwicks.
But this is no bleeding heart. His disdain for rewilders and “environmentalists” (that he sees as zealots of a new secular religion) is apparent and he uses the same logical manner to dismantle the basis of those quasi-religious beliefs, by exploring the evidence.
He tells the tales, some well known, of the breeding pioneers like Bakewell, but is not afraid to point out their weaknesses, or that effectively they were first and foremost canny salesmen. Some of the myths continuing to surround the early breeds trace directly to their sellers and their patter.
His admiration of the nobility of the rarer breeds does not mask that he believes every animal has to earn its corn commercially. Profitable use of marginal areas to create valuable protein and wool, with synergetic benefits for the environment and providing management aids like the golden hoof effect. This is what it’s all about for him, creating something valuable from a place where otherwise there would be nothing valuable contributing to human progress. In that he echoes the 18th century pioneers that he writes about.
An example of this toughness is shown in his attitude towards the attempts to save Norfolk sheep. The breed was almost extinct with only a few ewes left and no rams. Instead of letting it go, the ewes were crossed with a Suffolk (which has an element of old Norfolk blood in it) to create what was in effect a new breed, the Norfolk Horn. He doesn’t peel his eggs, why create something that never existed (a poor Suffolk with horns) in the name of conservation? Why not allow the Norfolk breed to die a glorious death?
He is especially scathing of the payment regime that has seen slipper farming clear the Scottish Highlands of the sheep that many fought to establish and keep there. This episode in history, the Highland Clearances, is a sensitive cultural issue, but he makes no attempt to skate around it, he tackles it head on. He even persists in referring to Scottish Blackfaces as “English sheep”. It is a determined effort not only to take the issue head on but to leave nobody in any doubt that this is exactly what he is doing.
It’s not all positive of course. Sometimes phrases are replicated through the book to no apparent benefit, let us say you are in no doubt that the white faced hill sheep are Celtic, and variations of these sheep form a broad sweep from the Cheviot hills down the West of Great Britain and down to the Chanel Isles.
Brevity is provided by the odd dead end in a chapter where the logical conclusion of the narrative drive is not so much as even hinted at. I can imagine that this is the result of an editor who is too close to the writer and would not want to offend. Rather than use précis, his tool of choice is a guillotine.
Flowery descriptions and authorly writing are shoehorned in. You get the feeling that the editor has suggested “lighter” or “more flowery” in red pen on a draft and Waller tries his best, but never quite pulls it off.
Elsewhere you get the feeling that he has had his head and (quite by accident) evocative prose ensues. The writing bug has got hold of him and he’s away. These are the best bits of the book to read; the anecdotes that pepper the drier logical arguments. There is almost a whole autobiography here that has been overlooked as that was not the type of book he wanted to write. He wanted to write a dissertation on British sheep. On occasions you wish he’d written two books so we get the full benefit of his flow on both aspects.
There is a set structure for the book in chapters dealing mainly with the selected individual breeds that act as exemplars of wider themes, but rarely does the author confine himself to the structure. To all but sufferers of OCD this I imagine would be another charming aspect for readers. The pattern is of a conversational lecturer well versed in his subject, so well versed the original root of the lectures are lost in time and the tangential makes up the majority of the material, like a Ronnie Corbett joke.
There are lessons about our world and the human condition. This is a manifesto for a type of progressive traditionalism. The idea that the sheep that dominate an area are the best they can be as a result of centuries of selective breeding and good husbandry; that weak breeds will fall from grace as the commercial reality changes; that profit for a farmer comes from improving what he has, of working with his resources to produce useful things for humanity; that different circumstances lead to different systems and outcomes, none less worthy than the next provided that the driver is that commercial realism.
All of this is readily apparent in the book of course but the matter of wider interest to me, that even the author may not have had in mind, is the parallels between the 18th and 21st centuries. The Dishley Leicesters and Robert Bakewell make regular appearances. He was a self publicist, some would say a charlatan and a salesman who spotted a gap in the market and exploited it. His breed has gone, but its influence remains in many others. He developed unique systems of recording his progress and leasing out his tups. The Dishley Leicesters were what we would call today a composite and Bakewell set up a breeding company. Despite the hype the results were not always favourable, but he made a lot of money, took a big share of the market and left the sheep industry here a different landscape, just like Innovis are attempting to do now.