Book review: Sheep by Philip Armstrong

Review of Sheep by Philip Armstrong, Reaktion Books, 200pp, pbk, 100 illustrations, 68 in colour; ISBN 978-1-78023-593-6, £12-95

With several books on other commonly farmed animals already published, Sheep by Philip Armstrong is a welcome addition to Reaktion Books’ Animal series. There are generally accepted to be five species of sheep: the wild Eurasian urial, argali and mouflon (the last two of which are endangered), the bighorn of the Americas, and the ubiquitous domestic sheep (Ovis aries). (Confusingly, Barbary sheep of North Africa and the blue sheep of Central Asia are not sheep at all but members of the goat-antelope family, and the popularly named ‘vegetable sheep’ or ‘sheep plant’ [Raoulia] of New Zealand is a member of the daisy family that vaguely resembles a sheep at a distance!) Domestication of sheep dates back at least 11,000 years, and by 4000 BCE they had reached Britain and China, the furthest extent of their spread before the colonisation of the Americas and the Australian subcontinent from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries. At first sheep were largely reared for their milk and later for their wool, trade in the latter underpinning the wealth of medieval England. Monks of the Cistercian order were the first to establish large domestic sheep farms, paving the way for the enclosures of the eighteenth century, by which time new breeds developed for their meat were feeding the dispossessed urban masses. Thus, sheep became unwitting agents in the rise of capitalism and ‘ecological imperialism’, a process by which Europeans used domestic animals to displace indigenous humans and animals, creating conditions suitable for settlers.

There has been a tendency to view sheep as “a mass of identical units rather than individuals”, reviled for their apparent stupidity or lauded as “the archetypal sacrificial victim and the incarnation of passive surrender”. In fact, “sheep possess highly acute forms of spatial, social and emotional intelligence”: they can recognise and remember faces (including those of other species), and with their letterbox-shaped pupils providing 320 degrees of vision sheep are able to keep in eye contact with other members of the flock, even when grazing or chewing the cud (activities that occupy about 20 hours of the day). In art and culture humans have tended to project their beliefs and preconceptions onto sheep (consider, for example, the Lamb of God of Christian theology and Renaissance art or the brainwashed sheep of George Orwell’s Animal Farm), although Aardman Animations’ Shaun the Sheep, forever one-step ahead of the bumbling farmer, defies the stereotype. In contrast, relatively few artists have portrayed sheep as an entity in themselves, a notable exception being the English artist and sculptor Henry Moore, whose Sheep Sketchbook of 1980 included nearly 100 naturalistic drawings of sheep.

Philip Armstrong is Co-Director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies, and when he documents the annual slaughter of tens of millions of sheep and lambs for meat or the production of skins for the fashion industry, the 3.8 million animals slaughtered during the UK foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001 (even though the disease is harmless to humans and rarely fatal to sheep), the brutal practice of mulesing (flaying the skin around the anus of merino sheep in an effort to prevent infestation by the eggs and maggots of blowflies), or the deaths of half a million sheep exported live from Australia between 2000 and 2012, there is no doubting where his sympathies lie. However, the book is much more than a litany of cruelty, and in describing their natural and cultural history the author admits to being “repeatedly astonished by sheep”. Read this engrossing book, and you will find out why.

Paul Appleby

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