Traditionally shepherds counted their sheep in scores – or lots of twenty – twice a day, morning and evening, just to check that they hadn’t lost any in the night. When the shepherd got to twenty he or she would place a pebble in their pocket and start again and so on until they ran out of sheep or pebbles.
There are various regional versions of sheep counting but my own favourite is Cumbrian sheep counting. Some sources believe that this form of counting goes back to the Vikings – and given that there are studies that suggest that iconic Cumbrian sheep,the Herdwick, was introduced by non other than the Vikings it is easy to see how this conclusion was arrived at.
Others identify this particular form of counting as a Celtic form of counting – Brythonic Celtic if you want to be accurate. The ancient kingdom of Rheged of which Cumbria was a part was Celtic and for those of you who like unexpected links – was once ruled by Coel Hen – or Old King Cole (the merry monarch).
There is also a theory that sheep counting, which is rhythmic, is the reason that counting sheep is supposed to send you to sleep: yan, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yan-a-dick, tyan-a-dick, tethera-dick, methera-dick, bumfit, yan-abumfit, tyan-a-bumfit, methera bumfit, giggot. It’s also hugely repetitive with only the light relief of number fifteen as a diversion.
Wool is historically one of England and Wales most important industries. Dre-fach Felindre in the Teifi valley was once the centre of a thriving woollen industry, earning the nickname ‘The Huddersfield of Wales’ – the two don’t have many other similarities. It is now home to the National Wool Museum of Wales. We visited one very wet summer’s day to find out more about sheep farming and the production of textiles and in its turn it inspired me to create the cross stitch sampler at the start of this post with its varous methods of counting and various sheep or wool related images including the teasels which were once grown in industrial quantities to tease the tangles from the wool.
In medieval England wool was produced for export to the Low Countries where weavers were prepared to pay best prices for English wool. Even before that time sheep had been important – the Domesday Book reveals that there wherefore sheep than any other kind of animal. From the thirteenth century onwards wool generated huge wealth for the country and it explains why from Yorkshire to the Cotswolds not to mention East Anglia there are so many magnificent churches. Let’s not forget that Norwich was once England’s second city based entirely on the wealth generated from wool. The Merchants of the Staple are one of the oldest corporations still in existence. The Cistercians built their great monasteries on the wealth of wool based on their use of the grange system – or specialist farms. By the fourteenth century there were something like 150,000 sheep in Yorkshire alone. The sheep in question turn up in sculpture and manuscripts. Interestingly whilst sheep milk and sheep cheese was important to the agrarian society of the time meat was a later addition to the sheep’s versatility with mutton finding it’s way onto the menu.
Mutton, incidentally, comes from a sheep which is more than a year old. Sheep of course can be ewes, rams, tups, hoggets or wethers. They come in all shapes and sizes. Cheviot sheep with their startled ears and dense wool have been around since the fourteenth century whereas the blackfaced suffolk sheep with their black legs, faces and downturned ears have only been recorded since the eighteenth century. An article in Country Life identifies twenty-one native breeds of sheep and provides a handy identikit summary for sheep spotters. It can be found here http://www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/shaggy-sheep-stories-21-native-british-sheep-breeds-recognise-153367