“I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go.”
WHAT: “An addictively free-ranging survey of the huge impact that the domesticated ungulates of the genus Ovis have had on human history.”
WHO: “After studying Archaeology & Anthropology at Oxford University, best-selling author and designer Sally Coulthard has spent the last twenty years designing, making and writing about homes, craft and outdoor spaces. She sees no boundary between the rules that govern good interior design and those which are needed to craft a spectacular studio or glorious garden.
Keen to make good design accessible, she’s written over twenty books about restoring houses, designing interiors and outdoor living. From garden styles to craftsmanship, creating workspaces to building sheds, Sally’s books inspire, encourage and equip readers to take on projects of their own.
Sally is a passionate advocate of rural living and regularly writes about nature and her experiences of smallholding deep in North Yorkshire countryside, including her ‘Good Life in Country’ column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine.”
A while back, I read a fascinating article about how the Vikings would have never conquered huge swathes of the Western world without sheep. Not only did sheep provide food and clothing for the marauding hordes but, crucially, they provided the fleeces needed for their ships’ vast, woollen sails. And it got me thinking, what other cultural or historical events have been shaped by this unassuming creature?
As I started to poke around, I soon found at that many key aspects of human history have sheep at their centre – medieval wool wealth and wars, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire, the success of the Romans, the Black Death, the Industrial Revolution – sheep have clothed us, made us rich, impoverished others, helped us colonise countries, decorated our homes, changed our rural landscape, altered our diets, helped scientific breakthroughs and much much more….
Sheep are obviously the plucky heroes of your narrative. Are humans the boo-hiss villains of the drama?
It depends on how you look at it I suppose. Sheep have been exploited by humans for over ten thousand years and we’ve changed their bodies, temperament and natural habitats to suit our needs. So yes, we’re the exploiters. And yet, sheep have benefited in a way. Human interference has meant that a wild creature, which had a limited range, now lives on every continent apart from Antarctica. The world has around a billion sheep, and over a thousand different breeds and cross-breeds. There’s no danger of sheep going extinct any time soon and so, in a way, they are winners at least in the evolutionary sense. Welfare wise, I’m not so sure.
Are sheep as unintelligent as we like to think?
Absolutely not. We underestimate sheep all the time. Far from being dim, sheep have been shown to be able to recognise at least fifty different faces, distinguish between facial expressions such as happy and sad, navigate through complex mazes and remember how they did it. One Cambridge University professor, who has spent years testing sheep with learning tasks, concluded that you’d struggle to tell the difference, in terms of intelligence, between a sheep and a monkey. And that, in many cases, sheep actually learn more quickly that their simian friends.
What’s your go-to mutton or lamb recipe? Is it an accident that there is no mention of rosemary in the book?
Ouch. Hard question on the back of an answer about sheep intelligence. Still, I have no problem with eating sheep, if they have had a high welfare life. We have a small flock here and, many times, we’ve eaten our own ‘lamb’. The Moroccans and Greeks are the masters of mutton and lamb recipes – often adding plenty of fragrant spice and sweet fruit, slow cooking, or chargrilling. There’s a fantastic recipe in Tessa Kiros’ ‘Falling Cloudberries‘ book, for Leg of Lamb with Oregano and Lemon. Hours of slow cooking leave you with a melting, lemony unctuous dish – perfect for a meal with friends.
Which item or artefact described would you most like to own in order to show off to dinner guests?
I’m slightly obsessed with scissors. I recently bought myself a pair of Viking scissors – just touching and holding them makes me think of whoever would have forged and treasured them a thousand years ago. And so, to answer your question, it’d probably be the bronze ancient Egyptian shears in Chapter 3 – such amazing craftsmanship and decoration, with so much of the symbolism lost in time. It’s interesting that scissors still hold such superstitions for people – such as never giving a pair to a friend or, if you do, the receiver has to ‘pay’ for the scissors with a small coin or token.
If you could totally, undisputedly, dude-she-really-knows-her-stuff-edly master one of the skills you chronicle which would it be?
I’ve never had a go at sheep-shearing. It looks really difficult. I know shepherdesses who think nothing of throwing a ewe on its back and, like lightning, clipping it clean. It’s tough, dextrous work and I’d be curious to have a go. Love a practical challenge. Failing that, my knitting skills could do with a polish.
Let’s say that you decide to create the shepherding equivalent of a mixtape, a mixed flock of the breeds that most speak to you. Which are you including and are you being practical or aesthetic?
Sheep breeds are like vernacular buildings, each region has its own unique sheep with their own unique traits; the pretty Herdwicks in the Lake District, for example, or the Hebridean sheep with their remarkable horns. I love that variety and long may it last. I’d create a flock that represented all the different counties – to show that variety and adaptability – real characters like a craggy, tough little Soay sheep, a Welsh badger face, a long-haired, lustrous Wensleydale, a crazy-horned Isle of Man Loaghtan and a teddybear-faced Southdown. Too many to choose from. One of each of the 50 or so native breeds, please.
The pastures green of the early chapters morph (almost overnight) into the dark, satanic mills of the early industrial revolution, so much of which was built with child labour. At the time there were those (such as William Pitt the Younger) who advocated in favour of child labour, justified it as an economic and even moral necessity. Were you ever (even a little bit) persuaded by their arguments and what do you think are the lessons modern society needs to learn from that problematic era?
The past is a different country and so it can be difficult to judge historic events through modern sensibilities. Taking child labour, for example, we need to see the context – at the time, most families wouldn’t have had a choice that a child had to be a productive member of the family if they lived in poverty (which most people did). That said, we can’t be value-less when we look back at history. Rather than blame the parents who had to send their children to work, for example, I think it is important to analyse the kind of society which put profit before human wellbeing and whether that’s who we want to be now. I think my politics sometimes creep through into my books – it’s hard not to get angry about people being thrown off their land to make way for sheep farming or to feel ashamed about Victorian attitudes towards poverty, welfare and social class. We enjoy plenty of modern privileges thanks to past injustices – what we shouldn’t do is to try justify it or celebrate it.
Sheep have a past. Do they have a future?
Hope so. It depresses me to see how large-scale, intensive sheep rearing is causing all kinds of ecological problems across the planet while, at the same time, small scale sheep farmers can’t sell their wool for more than it costs them to have the sheep sheared. It’s all part of a wider discussion about agriculture and mixed farming, and where food security and sustainability fits into all this. It’ll take a wiser person that me to come up with the answer.
What are you currently working on?
Lots of projects on the go – still writing my monthly column for ‘Country Living‘ magazine, about my adventures on our North Yorkshire smallholding, and have a new book about earthworms coming out in time for Christmas (it’s fascinating, I promise). In spring 2021, a new book about the history and folklore of flowers – called ‘Floriography’ – and then a big history book out later in 2021, called ‘The Barn‘, about farming and rural life over the past three hundred years.