Counting Sheep

BBC sheepEngland has a fair few sheep. Coming in from the US, the first ones you see may very well be the ones along the motorway just outside Heathrow. I didn’t expect to find animals grazing under the paths of jumbo jets landing at the worlds busiest airport, but that’s the kind of timeless-rhythms-of-life-meets-modernity juxtaposition you get in the United Kingdom. (See previous mention of druids with web addresses).

The Heathrow sheep were there on my first trip to England, decades ago, and they’re there to this day. Presumably today we see different actual individual sheep than the ones I saw years ago, though you can’t be sure; the town of Milton Keynes, just north of London, is famous for erecting concrete cows on the skyline to give residents, most of whom commute to white-collar jobs in London, the impression of living in the country without any of the nuisance of actually having to take care of animals.

I’ve been to a lot of historic places that were out in the middle of sheep fields, such as the Uffington White Horse, which sounds like it ought to be a pub but is a prehistoric design cut into a hillside. The cuts expose the chalk under the turf so that the figure of the horse (er, if it is a horse; historians can’t be sure, and for purposes of this post, we could just as easily consider the possibility that it’s a sheep—why not?) shows up white against a green hillside, visible for miles.

The White Horse of Uffington

The White Horse of Uffington

If you want to see the cut turf up close you have to walk through the field. But sheep are not exactly good with strangers. Their habit at this historic site and at any number of castles, stone circles, dolmans and barrows I’ve encountered seems to be to back off, snort, urinate with great force, and then run away.

This means the sheep end up running all over the place, which you might not think is a terribly useful habit. There is, however at least one application for the ambling and shambling of the flock: art. In 2002, poet Valerie Laws exploited the movement of sheep to create ever-changing poems. Using a grant of £2000 from an arts agency she spray-painted one word of her original haiku-like poem on the back of each member of a Northumberland flock (the farmer got a cut) and let the sheep mill around to create new word patterns. A novel idea, to say the least, and there might have been interesting results, although the poet maintained that this project had something to do with exploring the principles of quantum mechanics–the sheep move randomly, you see–which seems rather to be overstating the case. (You can read the story at the BBC web site.)

The arms of the Borough of Guildford, with woolsacks on the right and the left.

The arms of the Borough of Guildford, with woolsacks on the right and the left.

The wool from English flocks underpinned the economy of the country in the middle ages. Huge industries for weaving cloth, dying it, and exporting it to the continent kept wealth pouring into England. (Here urine seeps into the story again, because during much of that time the primary dye was woad, and urine was traditionally needed in the dying process.) Wool churches—so called because rich wool-trade families showed off some of their wealth by building or refurbishing churches—still dot the maps here, and woolsacks show up on the arms of English market towns and boroughs.

Baroness Hayman presides over the House of Lords from the woolsack.

Baroness Hayman presides over the House of Lords from the woolsack.

The most important woolsack of them all can be found in the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster as the seat of the Lord Speaker who, to this day, actually runs the sessions of the House of Lords sitting on a sack of wool. That started in the reign of King Edward III, who was on the throne (though presumably not one made of wool) from 1327 to 1377.

In the 21st century, people use sheep’s fleeces as environmentally friendly attic/loft insulation-–and there’s one more twist to the story of sheep and urine, too. Stagecoach, the company that runs busses past my house in Surrey, uses products refined from sheep’s urine to reduce pollutants in their exhaust. (Here’s the full story.)

So my first English sheep, grazing between the runway and the motorway after we landed at Heathrow, seem to have given a glimpse of the English landscape as it must have looked for centuries and, with any luck, the way it will look for a long time to come.

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Counting Sheep

  1. Nettie

    Lovely, informative essay!

  2. Martha Powers

    How many sheep is a “fair few”?

    More than a bunch?

    Signed,

    Puzzled American

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