This book is an invitation to discover what goes on behind the scenes and how sheep have been pivotal in Britain’s economic and social history.
Reading Philip Walling’s book is like taking a stroll through the countryside in the company of a gentleman whose twin passions – history and husbandry – fuel an easy conversation peppered with information that’s typically the preserve of farmers and ecologists. He talks about the histories and characteristics of individual ancient breeds that are still with us, shares his own stories of fell gathers, his favourite dogs and accomplished breeders, and describes the quirks of unusual sheep, such as those in North Ronaldsay, which live on seaweed and can swim.
On this rich foundation, he considers broader issues such as the ethics of ritual slaughter and the pressure of rewilding on upland farming. And because there’s hardly a sheep-keeping country in the world that hasn’t benefitted from the genes of British sheep and sheep dogs, the relevance of this history goes far.
Walling’s familiarity with sheep is typical of a farmer who spends each day with his animals; he sees ancient breeds as proud, coming from an earlier time ‘when relations between people and their animals were regulated by a greater respect for the servitude that domestic animals give their human keepers’. And he brings a respect for the shepherds who still tend the land through a number of personal stories that reveal their commitment to land and animal, and a wish to pass both to the next generation in better condition.
COUNTING SHEEP: A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling, Profile, £14.99