Soay sheep

I have quite a few pictures of Soay sheep – the oldest extant domesticated variety in the world – having travelled several times to Holy Isle where there’s a population allowed to roam entirely without interference across the island.

It is believed to be a survivor of the earliest domesticated sheep kept in northern Europe, and it remains physically similar to the wild ancestors of domestic sheep, the Mediterranean mouflon and the horned urial sheep of Central Asia. It is much smaller than modern domesticated sheep but hardier, and is extraordinarily agile, tending to take refuge amongst the cliffs when frightened.

 The sheep have short tails and naturally shed their wool, which can be hand plucked (called rooing) in the spring and early summer. About one kilogram of wool can be obtained from each animal per year.

This breed has extremely fine fleece and, in contrast to mouflon, the inner fleece is highly developed and it is difficult to distinguish an outer coat. This is a clear indication that the Soay are indeed the product of a domesticated breed in prehistoric times. The breed also lacks the flocking instinct of many breeds. Attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in a scattering of the group.

You can clearly see the wool in the process of being shed on the ewe’s shoulder, above.

They’re delightfully skittish and although used to the presence of humans on Holy Isle, don’t exactly hang around to be petted. They are often to be seen picking their way daintily along the pebbly beaches occasionally grazing on the seaweed as well as the sparse grass.

I’ve just got that inch or so too close to this fine looking ram – his head is down preparatory to getting up and stalking, either away or towards depending on the number of ewes around and the perceived threat I pose. I retreated.

The biggest group of Soay sheep in the UK is on the island of Hirta where the unmanaged population has been the object of scientific scrutiny for more than 50 years.

The sheep exhibit a phenomenon known as overcompensatory density dependence, in which their population never reaches equilibrium. The population growth is so great as to exceeded the carrying capacity of the island, which eventually causes a dramatic population crash, and then the cycle repeats. For example, in 1989, the population fell by two-thirds within 12 weeks.

The population on Holy Isle is unmanaged too, and that means that dead sheep are also not an unusual sight, although I don’t know whether the group exhibits the same density dependence phenomenon.

This one took several hours to die, and was difficult to watch even for the briefest time. Its horn had gouged divots in the ground where it struggled on its side before finally being sheathed in the earth. Eventually the undisturbed corpse will disintegrate leaving the picked-clean bones the last to be recycled…

…becoming part of the assorted flotsam and jetsam of the beach over which its descendants will, we hope, still be grazing.


Two shakes of a lamb’s tail

This was one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings – “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lambs tail”. It’s an informal unit of time. No, really. It’s an informal unit of time equal to 20 nanoseconds (since one shake is equal to 10 nanoseconds) used in nuclear physics.

In my childhood universe it was an informal unit of exponentially increasing lengths of time tending (slowly) towards infinity. Experimental evidence proved conclusively that the length of time referred to by any adult using the phrase was never congruent with my conception of “a very short time” and was far more likely to resemble “forever”.

The lambs in question shake their tails most vigorously when suckling (although no one’s quite sure why, it’s not observed in other animals) and the speed is said, anecdotally, to be about 300 wags per minute. Which makes two shakes 0.4 seconds. (Or should that be 0.4 of a second?) Anyway, here’s a lamb’s tail from Dartmoor.

Within the first three days of the lambs life, the farmer will ring the lamb’s tail. A tight rubber band is placed near the top of the tail with calipers. This restricts and eventually stops the flow of blood to the tail which falls off after a few weeks. Although this causes the lamb some discomfort for the first 24 hours, it is an effective and safe way of removing the majority of the tail which greatly reduces the risk of fly strike – a debilitating problem that can quickly lead to death.

You can see the orange of the elastic band in the picture. And, if you want to know more about fly strike and have a strong stomach, you can go here. The tails are docked to prevent accumulation of the sheep’s own shit thereon, which attracts the flies which lay the eggs which hatch the maggots which then eat the sheep. Alive.

I started thinking about tails after yesterday’s Brewer browsing also turned up this:

Daggle-tail or Draggle-tail. A slovenly woman, the bottom of whose dress trails in the dirt. Dag (of uncertain origin) means loose ends, mire or dirt; whence dag-locks, the soiled locks of a sheep’s fleece, and dag-wool, refuse wool.

I’m sure that as a child we children used the expression “daggy” meaning, roughly “unpleasantly unclean and soiled, probably including faeces, probably claggy” (pronounced “cleggy” round my way). Google disagrees with me saying it’s an Australian English term meaning “unfashionable”. This it may also well be, but not to me.

Sheep tail docking is opposed by some animal rights activists, defended by some animal husbanders. I like this general round-up of sheep and their tails at the endearing website Sheep 101.

There one also learns that the much-prized tail fat of the fat-tailed sheep is known in Arabic as “allyah”. Whether that is homophonous with the name of the late R&B singer I do not know. Nor can I ascertain whether my supposition that fat-tailed lambs shake their tails at a lower speed than other varieties is correct.

Tree texture

I’m so excited I have to post the phonotypes on my way home. Think the oldest tree(s) in Kew Gardens, think bark, think texture and pattern…


And now add wool…


…which, gloriously, appropriately, rejoices in the colour name “bark” and you have a conjunction made in heaven. IMHO.

Many reference pictures were taken. Graph paper has been acquired. Pencils have been sharpened. Oh, and measurements are in hand. Tension square still required. More later (I hope).

ETA: There’s a little slideshow here, with some general trunkiness and a few close-ups of barkiness. They twist up out of the ground like inverted drill-bits. Trunk-torque. Considerable thought will now have to be given to how best convey at least something of the character in knitted form.

Ear-crackling weather

Beautiful clear skies, burnished sunlight, nearly no breeze wafting the baubles…

…but cold enough to render the cartilage of the outer ear feeling as frangible as good pork crackling. Mid November, and time to don a decent ear-covering hat.

Mine is here. The yarn for one half was spun by Erzsebel from fleece (Shetland and Wensleydale) dyed by Pixeldiva. Had I thought about it I should have used a twisted rather than plain rib in the knitting. It’s glorious colours, divinely soft and pleasingly versatile since it’s reversible and can be worn as a cowl round the neck. Best of all it’s got the immeasurable warmth that comes from the twined friendships of its provenance.


As early as the mid-sixteenth century the apparently aimless wanderings of those collecting the shed fleece of sheep caught on bushes had gained the attested metaphorical meaning of  “indulging in wandering fancies and purposeless thinking”.

This is a fragment of fleece on Shovel Down, Dartmoor. The Bronze Age double stone row is thought to represent a system of field division. Four thousand years ago and the land here probably already looked much as it does now, sparse tree cover in mainly open pasture grazed by sheep. Our forebears were already spinning and weaving the fleece, although somewhat late to the party compared to people in other parts of the world.

Having finished the slip-case and a pair of slippers (still with 2.5 balls of the salmon pink Kalahari Karakul to spare – does anyone want something small but hard-wearing in this, cough, unique yarn?) I’ve now embarked upon the first of two hats from Yorkshire wool, grown, processed, spun and sold in Yorkshire and now being knitted in London before returning home. It’s the teal, for L, on the needles at the moment. And employing a twisted rib pattern.


Nearly missed it, been tending the sick. Here’s a quick sad sheep:

although it looks somewhat (and delightfully) pig-like around the snout to me. There is no mistaking that fat tail though. Unless, of course… No. Consider it not. This is Victorian funerary statuary we’re talking about.

And here’s a quick link to wikipedia’s entry on sheep in religion and folklore, the only thing I could find at short notice that wasn’t almost entirely confined to Christianity.

Feeble effort, I know. I apologise.

Wool don’t get much more 100%

…than when in the process of being parted from the sheep.

I thought I’d blogged about this, but apparently not (or at least a cursory search doesn’t reveal anything). It’s a sheep being shorn at a sheep-to-shawl event at Vauxhall City Farm in May last year. Anyway, although the comparison is somewhat pretentious, I love the way the sheep looks as though she is being carved from an enclosing medium like, well, Michelangelo’s slaves. Also the pinkness of the skin. And that’s one hell of an expressive gaze.

It’s not a very satisfactory picture – conditions were cramped, we arrived late and there were lots of people crowded around. This, an electric clipping, was the second of two; we altogether missed the first of a Wensleydale with hand shears. Dammit! The rest of the set, for what they’re worth, can be seen here.

I’m submitting this to the Wovember picture gallery where, I was delighted to see, there is among the many wonderful images a picture of a sheep being hand shorn.