Wonders of woolly thinking

Sheep have moved on since the nativity, says Frank Burnet as he ruminates on the ruminants with star quality to spare

December 18, 2008

It is rarely pointed out that, at least according to St Luke, sheep - and their shepherds - were chosen as recipients of the first must-have invitation, a manger-side seat at the birth of Christ.

It is true that an ox and an ass also attended, although probably only because the event involved their food bowl, and also that three seriously rich blokes turned up a little later claiming to have followed a star. But it has been suggested that they got their tickets from a tout.

The presence of sheep at one of the most significant moments in the Bible story is testimony to our fixation on some of the first animals we domesticated. They were ideal for our purposes, being fast growing, wool bearing and inclined to form flocks. They even showed a willingness to accept humans as honorary sheep and appoint them their leader.

The Bible contains 189 references to sheep, and the nativity story marks a transition from their Old Testament role as sacrificial animals to their starring role in the New Testament, which is a single extended sheep, flock and shepherd metaphor. I had no objection to this until I discovered in my early teens that the geriatric old bigot I was forced to listen to every Sunday had elected himself flock leader and had identified me as having definite astray tendencies.

Possibly because I could never keep a straight face at that point in the Messiah where the school choir loudly and repeatedly proclaimed "For we like sheep", or indeed insisted on singing "Love ovine, all loves excelling" in an interesting variation of the Wesley hymn.

But sheep's place in history is not just about making sly digs at the Welsh.

Consider for a moment the nursery rhyme Baa Baa, Black Sheep, widely believed to be a protest against the wool tax levied by Edward I. He needed the money to fund his crusades, and wool was a high-value commodity. The original lyrics refer to the fact that two thirds of the price of wool went to the king (the master), one third to the monasteries (the dame), with nothing left for the shepherds (the little boys).

But it is one thing for sheep to fund wars and quite another to go war on their behalf, as happened in 1982 when the Falklands, islands with a sheep-to-human ratio of about 240:1, the highest on the planet, suddenly became the cause of a short but bloody war between Mrs Thatcher and Argentina.

Much was made of the martial way in which Mrs T conducted herself, but - possibly understandably - her speech writers steered clear of suggesting that the heroic efforts of Her Majesty's Forces had been to create a world safe for sheep to live in.

If the Falklands war could be seen as rather low key from the ovine point of view, recent years have been a PR triumph. First, there was Dolly. Would it have been such a sensational story if it had been a cloned rat that had been similarly thrust into the limelight? I suspect not; it would have lacked the opportunities for anthropomorphism offered by the outcome of the experiment being an animal for which humans had had a best-friend relationship for millennia.

The early death of Dolly could have herded sheep out of the limelight but, as if foreplanned, a Cambridge team of sheepologists was waiting in the wings to report that, far from being the woolly dullards we had all assumed, sheep had a rich repertoire of personal skills.

They can recognise the faces of up to 50 sheep and retain the information for at least two years, a test that I would never pass with sheep and might well fail with humans. It was also reported that they can read emotion on each other's faces, recognise individual humans and self-medicate using the kinds of natural remedies recommended to us by authorities such as Richard and Judy.

What next, one wonders? How long before we discover that sheep make ideal chat-show hosts or have views on whether the role of ruminants in global warming has been overstated?

Have sheep being deceiving us? Have they been exploiting our vanity and concealing their intelligence so that we do all the drudgery while they get to wander the hillsides discussing the contribution of Kierkegaard to theories of divinity while stoned out of their minds on recreational herbal remedies?

We have no way of knowing.

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