Golden Fleece

W.R. Mead

  • Sheep and Man by M.L. Ryder
    Duckworth, 846 pp, £55.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 7156 1655 2
  • Outback by Thomas Keneally
    Hodder, 256 pp, £12.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 340 33669 2

There is little in common between these two books save that they are both written by enthusiasts, and that they both extend the reader’s vocabulary. One book is by a man of the West Riding with an obsession for sheep; the other by an author who is making a distinctive contribution to Australian literature and who has a passion for the outback. Sheep and Man employs the full range of zoological terminology and gathers together the arcane languages of the shepherd’s calling from the four corners of the world. It will enable us to add ‘slynkette’, ‘kebb’, ‘riggon’ and ‘jerk’ (or ‘gimmer’) to our terms of affection or abuse, to display our knowledge of wool weights by reference to cloves, tods and weys, or (if we encounter an ear-clipper) to understand the difference between a fidder, a hingin’ widder, a stoo or a gongbit. As the anecdotes and biographical sketches of Outback attest, a glossary of powerful and pungent expressions is also to be found in the thirsty, bull-punching Northern Territory. It is the language of a land such as God gave Cain – or Mina Minahan, to select one of the characters that Thomas Keneally pulls in from Australia’s badlands and sets amid the colourful photographs of Mark Lang and Gary Hansen.

Sheep and Man, offering history to the scientist and biology to the historian, fits into no particular discipline. It rejects demarcation in scholarship and contrives to make a formidable mass of facts palatable. Outback, a down-to-earth record of people and places in the least agreeable part of Australia, is all memories and experiences from a land most of which within living memory was still the preserve of the near-prehistoric aboriginals. And, while for many the mental association of sheep with Australia is as clear-cut as its association with kangaroos, the word ‘sheep’ does not appear in Keneally’s index. The great hinterland of the city of Darwin is void of the merino, the migratory sheep-shearers and the ballads that are essential to Ryder’s Australia. To talk sheep in Alice Springs, which aggressively advertises the virtues of beef, might be an affront. Yet, to echo ‘Alice-Mutton: Mutton-Alice’ in this frequently surrealist country would not seem amiss. For the outback is a kind of Humpty-Dumpty land. It rejoices in jabberwocky place-names, it has its Henley regatta on the dry bed of the River Todd, it has its wurley house of the Pintubi man, it learns in school that three times zero is zero, it has rumbustious men who ‘draw the line at conversation’. Above all, it is threaded, both literally and metaphorically, with the ‘dreaming trails’ of its native population.

Ryder follows a different kind of dream trail. Sheep and Man is born of his concern with the golden fleece and its evolution on the backs of a thousand breeds of sheep as they have emerged through a probable ten thousand years. It is a long trek from the remains of wool on the parchment of an 18th-century enclosure award (which first awakened his curiosity) to the two hundred other fragments dated from 1193 to 1871 which he has subsequently examined. Add to them some fibres from the Dead Sea scrolls, from a Scythian burial mound in Siberia, from Saxon, Norse and Coptic sources, and it will be clear that Ryder is a wool-gatherer extraordinary. In building up his table of evolution of fleece types, he pieces together the story of domestication of a ruminant second to none. From a Middle East centre of diffusion, the sheep has advanced to the edges of the Arctic (the Vikings took them to Greenland) and the frontiers of the torrid zone (which is richly illustrated by Ryder’s table of measurements of African sheep). Moreover, in the process of feeding, flocking and breeding, sheep have made their own contribution to the cultures of those who tend them. Might the history of Australia’s aboriginals have been different if this unobtrusive and domesticable creature had also been found on their side of Wallace’s Line? Sheep certainly survived and survive between the desert and the sown lands of even harsher habitats in the Old World. So, too, in the New World, where curiously enough they were never domesticated by the Indians.

The organisation of Ryder’s text has not been without its problems. He has solved them by following a chronological course from prehistoric times, through ancient civilisations to the early Middle Ages, before adopting a geographical approach and tracing the introduction and development of modern sheep breeds from country to country. He concludes with a review of husbandry methods, of sheep products and of the linguistic legacy. Personal names, place names, metaphor and simile owe much to an animal near and dear to man – even nearer and dearer to Islamic man. In the circumstances it is strange that the sheep has not acquired an adjective as familiar as ‘bovine’, ‘equine’, ‘canine’ or ‘feline’. And while the animal is a symbol for simplicity when young and a synonym for simple-mindedness when old, it nevertheless shows signs of psychological disturbance when fleeced.

As with all specialists, it is clear that Ryder is drawn magnetically to everything appertaining to sheep. This is manifest in the 27 pages of bibliography, in the personal experiences he recounts from distant places, and in the remarkable array of illustrations. His literary references range from the Biblical to the biological, from the Classical to the statistical. Virgil and Columella, quoted in extenso, are there as well as Jacob and Solomon. For instruction in management practices, Le Bon Berger of Jehan de Brie from 14th-century France complements H. Best’s Rural Economy from 17th-century Yorkshire. British monastic and estate records complement the printed literature: R. A. Pelham’s map of 14th-century English wool prices makes a striking impact, and R. Trow Smith’s celebrated History of British Animal Husbandry is well to the fore. The past throws the present into relief at every turn. Knossos provides some of the earliest statistical information, with sheep listed by the thousand on clay tablets (did the shepherds of those times have the counterparts of the hundred or more counting systems that antiquarians have collected in the British Isles?). And how different the Mediterranean management practices from those that followed enclosure in Britain – a system which converted sheep into a form of stationary wealth. Stock-carrying capacity became a more precise consideration when grassland management entered the farming system. In Cistercian times, a sheep needed eight acres of grazing, while today two acres is wholly adequate. Contrastingly, tooth wear on modern grass breeds is greater than on natural pastures. The victory over sheep diseases is dramatic. Losses of from 2 to 5 per cent today compare with ten times that number in the Middle Ages. Today, a ram can serve twice as many ewes as when sheep first began to dominate the British farming scene.

The measure of development is illustrated not only in the familiar names of the 43 British regional types, and in the exotic names of fifty Indian breeds, but also in the remnants of breeds from the past that have persisted in isolated islands and highlands. Thus the Soay sheep of St Kilda – bearing an old Norse name to this day – still provide examples of the feeding habits, replacement rates and mortality conditions as they might have been in past times. Development is also illustrated by the advance from prehistoric times, when the sheep was without wool as it is known today, to a situation in which fifty different grades of wool are listed.

Among the fleeces, that of the merino still has a distinctive character. And no other breed of sheep is surrounded with quite the same kind of romance. In the early 18th century it was still a capital offence for Spaniards to export it. The monopoly was broken in 1723 when the King of Spain sent a gift of merinos to Sweden. Thereafter it appears to have been smuggled out of Iberia, among other countries to South Africa, from which it was exported to Australia in 1797, and to the United States, where it became established in the 1790s. The merino was already thriving in Australia before Ayers had given his name to the impressive outcrop that is central to Keneally’s Outback. By comparison with other breeds, it delighted Australia’s earliest sheep-breeder, the Reverend Samuel Marsden. Not surprisingly, Ryder has subjected to microscopic analysis samples of woollen cloth from the very sheep that Marsden delicately described as ‘yearning three times in two years’.

Such personal touches, coupled with the illustrations, add to the readability of Ryder’s substantial text. Ryder has followed the sheep trails and their shepherds in many lands, from Anatolia to Estremadura, from the Altai steppe to Bergamo (which gave its name to parchment). He has enjoyed Hungary’s sheep museum and sampled Samarkand’s karakul research station. The evolution of the sheep is traced visually through neolithic drawings from the Atlas Mountains to Sumerian, Egyptian, Minoan and Babylonian sculptures and bas-reliefs, through rams’ heads carved by Spartans upon amethysts, to the procession of fine-fleeced sheep that adorns the frieze of the Parthenon (and looks as though it were drawn by William Blake himself), through the sheep of Byzantine mosaics and Mogul paintings, to those of the miniatures of a miscellany of breviaries, psalteries and bestiaries. The habitats of sheep in most countries of the world are illustrated and are identified in a variety of maps and diagrams depicting vegetation and climatic circumstance. The absence of sheep from Keneally’s northern outback is strikingly illustrated in Ryder’s distribution map of sheep in Australia, though it is inclined to suggest that rainfall alone is the determining factor. Transhumance patterns from a variety of Mediterranean countries are also presented. In France in particular, they intimate that while summer grazings cannot be dispensed with, increasing adjustments are required. Among diagrams, ‘family trees’ of sheep evolution and fleece development provide unusual marriages of fact and theory. Similarities and differences in the equipment evolved by shepherds in various countries reflect a nice adjustment to the particular type of animal bred, to the local environment and to changing technology.

The mystery of the domestication of the sheep remains. In retrospect, it was among the most vulnerable of mammals to carnivores, to hunting pressures, and to changes in grazing potential consequent upon climatic change. Having acquired a scarcity value, it is possible that early man drew it into his protective fold. Domestication may even represent the acceptance of a long-standing association between man and animal which was of mutual benefit. Undoubtedly, without domestication – ‘the greatest conservation movement of all time’, as David Harris has happily put it – sheep might have disappeared from the Old World. Furthermore, the link between dog and man has not been without significance for sheep. The sheep dog has its own special place in Ryder’s study. For Keneally’s Territorians, it becomes the cattle dog. Djunga, flying in her master’s Cessna to help spot wild bulls from the air, adds a new canine dimension to the pastoral assistance of Columella’s Lupa and Feros, though she retains a similarly disyllabic name to elicit a quick response.

Prospectively, sheep can only command increasing attention – and respect. Reflecting upon the world’s diversity of breeds, Ryder regrets the almost obsessive British concern with fat lambs and the huge import bill for clothing wool much of which could be produced at home. Finally, if our advanced civilisation were to collapse, the sheep, of all domesticated livestock, would be the most likely to survive and to resume its historical role as a universal provider. Ryder devotes pages to its products: food for all seasons, clothing for all regions, felt for shelter, skins for manifold purposes, parchment for records, tallow for lighting, horn for implements, bagpipes for such merry-making as there might be – even the aid for family planning which Casanova long ago discovered in the sheep’s appendix. Of course, the Territorians of North Australia – both white and black – would for various reasons be the fittest to survive any major shock to our system. Nor would they be slow to realise that there is more to the sheep than a fat lamb and a fine fleece.