Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock


A Sicilian Shepherd

Photo by J. H. Comstock.

The Sheep

Teacher's Story

"The earliest important achievement of ovine intelligence is to know whether its own notion or another's is most worth while, and if the other's, which one? Individual sheep have certain qualities, instincts, competences, but in the man-herded flocks these are superseded by something which I shall call the flock mind, though I cannot say very well what it is, except that it is less than the sum of all their intelligences. This is why there have never been any notable changes in the management of flocks since the first herder girt himself with a wallet of sheep-skin and went out of his cave-dwelling to the pastures."

—"The Flock," by Mary Austin

Both sheep and goats are at home on mountains, and sheep especially, thrive best in cool, dry locations. As wild animals, they were creatures of the mountain crag and chasm, although they frequented more open places than the mountain goats, and their wool was developed to protect them from the bitter cold of high altitudes. They naturally gathered in flocks, and sentinels were set to give warning of the approach of danger; as soon as the signal came, they made their escape, not in the straight away race like the deer, but in following the leader over rock, ledge and precipice to mountain fastnesses where wolf nor bear could follow. Thus, the instinct of following the leader blindly, came to be the salvation of the individual sheep.

The teeth of the sheep are like those of the goat, eight incisors below and none on the upper row, and six grinding teeth at the back of each side of each jaw. This arrangement of teeth on the small, delicate, pointed jaws enables the sheep to crop herbage where cattle would starve; it can cut the small grass off at its roots, and for this reason, where vast herds of sheep range, they leave a desert behind them. This fact brought about a bitter feud between the cattle and sheep men in the far West. In forests, flocks of sheep completely kill all underbrush, and now they are not permitted to run in government reserves.

The sheep's legs are short and delicate below the ankle. The upper portion is greatly developed to help the animal in leaping, a peculiarity to which we owe the "leg of lamb" as a table delicacy. The hoof is cloven, that is, the sheep walks upon two toes; it has two smaller toes above and behind these. There is a little gland between the front toes which secretes an oily substance, which perhaps serves in preventing the hoof from becoming too dry. The ears are large and are moved to catch better the direction of sound. The eyes are peculiar; in the sunlight the pupil is a mere slit, while the iris is yellow or brownish, but in the dark, even of the stable, the pupils enlarge, almost covering the eye. The ewes either lack horns or have small ones, but the horns of wild rams are large, placed at the side of the head and curled outward in a spiral. These horns are perhaps not so much for fighting the enemy as for rival rams. The ram can strike a hard blow with head and horns, coming at the foe head on, while the goat always strikes sidewise. So fierce is the blow of the angry sheep, that an ancient instrument of war was fashioned like a ram's head and used to knock down walls, and was called a battering ram. A sheep shows anger by stamping the ground with the front feet. The habit of rumination enables the sheep to feed in a flock and then retire to some place to rest and chew the cud, a performance peculiarly funny in the sheep.


A Sheep of Pedigree, Shropshire Ram

Sheep under attack and danger are silent; ordinarily they keep up a constant, gentle bleating to keep each other informed of their whereabouts; they also give a peculiar call when water is discovered, and another to inform the flock that there is a stranger in the midst; they also give a peculiar bleat, when a snake or other enemy which they conquer, is observed. Their sense of smell is very acute. Mary Austin says, "Young lambs are principally legs, the connecting body being simply a contrivance for converting milk into more leg, so you understand how it is that they will follow the flock in two days and are able to take the trail in a fortnight, traveling four and five miles a day, falling asleep on their feet and tottering forward in the way."

The older lambs have games which they play untiringly, and which fit them to become active members of the flock; one, is the regular game of "Follow My Leader," each lamb striving to push ahead and attain the place of leader. In playing this the head lamb leads the chase over most difficult places, such as logs, stones and across brooks; thus is a training begun which later in life may save the flock. The other game is peculiar to stony pastures; a lamb climbs to the top of a boulder and its comrades gather around and try to butt it off; the one which succeeds in doing this, climbs the rock and is "it." This game leads to agility and sure-footedness. A lamb's tail is long and is most expressive of lambkin bliss, when feeding time comes; but, alas! it has to be cut off so that later it will not become matted with burrs and filth. In southern Russia there is a breed of sheep with large, flat, fat tails which are esteemed as a great table delicacy. This tail becomes so cumbersome that wheels are placed beneath it, so that it trundles along behind its owner.


Mutual Contentment

We have a noble species of wild sheep in the Rocky Mountains which is likely to become extinct soon. The different breeds of domesticated sheep are supposed to have been derived from different wild species. Of the domesticated varieties, we have the Merinos which originated in Spain and which give beautiful, long, fine wool for our fabrics; but their flesh is not very attractive. The Merinos have wool on their faces and legs and have wrinkled skins. The English breeds of sheep have been especially developed for mutton, although their wool is valuable. Some of these, like the Southdown, Shropshire, and Dorset, give a medium length of wool, while the Cotswold has very long wool, the ewes having long strings of wool over their eyes in the fashion of "bangs."

The dog, as descended from the wolf, is the ancient enemy of sheep; and even now, after hundreds of years of domestication, some of our dogs will revert to savagery and chase and kill sheep. This, in fact, has been one of the great drawbacks to sheep raising in the Eastern United States. The collie, or sheep-dog, has been bred so many years as the special care-taker of sheep, that a beautiful relationship has been established between these dogs and their flocks. For instances of this, read the chapter on sheep-dogs in A Country Reader; "Wully" in Wild Animals I Have Known, and "Bob, Son of Battle."

Lesson LXVI

The Sheep

Leading thought—Sheep live naturally in high altitudes. When attacked by enemies, they follow their leader over difficult and dangerous mountain places.

Method—The questions of this lesson should be given to the pupils and the observations should be made upon the sheep in pasture or stable. Much written work may be done in connection with this lesson. The following topics are suggested for themes: "The Methods by which Wool is Made into Cloth," "The Rocky Mountain Sheep," "The Sheep-herders of California and their Flocks," "The True Story of a Cosset Lamb."


Horned Dorset Ram


1. What is the chief character that separates sheep from other animals? What is the difference between wool and hair? Why is wool of special use to sheep in their native haunts? Is there any hair on sheep?

2. Where do the wild sheep live? What is the climate in these places? Does wool serve them well on this account? What sort of pasturage do sheep find on mountains? Could cows live where sheep thrive? Describe the sheep's teeth and how they are arranged to enable it to crop vegetation closely? What happens to the vegetation on the range, when a great flock of sheep passes over it? Why are sheep not allowed in our forest preserves?

3. What are the chief enemies of sheep in the wilderness? How do the sheep escape them? Describe the foot and leg of the sheep and explain how they help the animal to escape its enemies. We say of certain men that they "follow like a flock of sheep." Why do we make this comparison? What has this habit of following the leader to do with the escape of sheep from wolves and bears?

4. How do sheep fight? Do both rams and ewes have horns? Do they both fight? How does the sheep show anger? Give your experience with a cross cosset lamb.

5. Do you think that sheep can see and hear well? What is the position of the sheep's ears when it is peaceful? When there is danger? How do the sheep's eyes differ from those of the cow?

6. Does the sheep chew its cud like the cow? Describe the action as performed by the sheep. How is this habit of cud chewing of use to the wild sheep?

7. Describe a young lamb. Why has it such long legs? How does it use its tail to express joy? What happens to this tail later? What games have you seen lambs play? Tell all the stories of lambs that you know.

8. How much of sheep language do you understand? What is the use to the wild flock of the constant bleating?

9. For what purposes do we keep sheep? How many breeds of sheep do you know? What are the chief differences between the English breeds and the Merinos? Where and for what purposes is the milk of sheep used?

10. Have you ever seen a collie looking after a herd of sheep? If so, describe his actions. Did you ever know of dogs killing sheep? At what time of day or night was this done? Did you ever know of one dog attacking a flock of sheep alone? What is there in the dog's ancestry which makes two or three dogs, when hunting, give chase and attack sheep?


Photo by Gerrit Miller

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