Country and Garden: The sheep of Frankenstein

Thanks to in-breeding, many sheep are so dim they face extinction. By Harry Pearson
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The Independent Culture
ROBERT BAKEWELL was one of the founders of modern agriculture. At his farm at Dishley in Leicestershire during the middle years of the 18th century, Bakewell used a strict selective breeding policy to improve the size, fecundity and growth speed of his livestock.

Perhaps selective in-breeding, might be a more accurate term, since the methods employed often involved the mating of closely related animals.

In a dispute which mirrors the current arguments over genetic engineering, many people expressed fears about what Bakewell was doing, citing Biblical injunctions against incest and predicting deformity and chaos.

One of the new breeds Bakewell produced by his techniques was the New Leicester sheep: a big, fast-maturing animal which was so coveted by other farmers he was able to hire out his prize ram, called Two Pounder, for a mighty 1,200 guineas per season. A contemporary painting exists of Two Pounder. It depicts him as barrel-shaped, with such short legs his most valuable assets are practically bumping along the ground. He appears to be wearing a sly grin. Perhaps that is not so surprising. After all, the only other creature to have been paid so much money to have sex was Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal.

Spiritually, if not quite literally, Two Pounder was the father of many of today's sheep breeds. One of those directly descended from him is the Bluefaced Leicester, a large, baggy beast with a pronounced Roman nose and a lugubrious mien which seems to express a lifetime of disappointment. Those who tend our nation's flocks and herds are wary of sentimental imaginings when it comes to animals, but I think that to suggest that this is a depressed sheep is more than anthropomorphism.

I have an acquaintance who is a retired North Pennines farmer. Fifty years of moorland life have left him with a face of weatherbeaten stoicism. The only thing I have ever known to crack his impassivity were the words "Bluefaced Leicester". His mouth curled and his eyes narrowed until he wore the expression of a man who has just discovered why you should not walk through a field of cows wearing flip-flops.

"The Bluefaced Leicester," he hissed vehemently, "has only one ambition in life and that is to die. The slightest breath of wind and she'll up and keel over. The hardest work man ever set himself was saving that 'un from extinction."

Sadly, the Bluefaced Leicester is not the only ovine with a death wish. I once asked a friend who farms in the Dales how he found his flock in heavy snow. "When looking for sheep," he said, "the first thing to do is ask yourself: where would I go if I was trapped in this blizzard? The leeward side of a wall would be the obvious place. And once you've identified the spot that an animal with even the slightest survival instinct would head for, you can eliminate it from your search. Because there is no way that a sheep will have gone there."

Even the sturdy Herdwick, the grey-fleeced, white-cheeked Lakeland sheep whose fortunes were revived by the intervention of Beatrix Potter, provokes a sharp intake of breath and the words: "They don't exactly battle to keep themselves alive," from those employed to look after them.

Despite these wise and accurate assessments and the kamikaze habit upland sheep have of throwing themselves in front of passing vehicles, it would be wrong to think that our flocks are actively suicidal. It is more that any zest for life they once possessed has been squeezed out of them.

The wild sheep, such as the European mouflon, are tough, resourceful and courageous enough to keep a wolf at bay. Most of his domesticated kin have not the sense to scrape away the snow with their hooves to find the grass beneath. Dogs, cats, goats and horses all fend for themselves if necessary, but there is no such thing as a feral ewe. No animal has lost more during the process of domestication than the sheep. Bakewell's opponents worried that he would create a monster. Instead, he created a hapless, nervous ninny.