Humans in the Middle East first domesticated sheep around 10,000 years ago. By 4500 BC, shepherds and their flocks had reached Britain. For centuries, in the Pennines and Lake District, shepherds used their sheep to yield wool, milk, meat and manure from otherwise uncultivable land. By the Middle Ages, the thriving wool trade made sheep even more valuable and Britain became a global centre of sheep husbandry.
Francis Pryor, archaeologist, author and farmer of 40 acres of Fenland pasture in Lincolnshire, is in a better position than most to appreciate the antiquity of his profession. “Keeping sheep connects us to our past, and especially at this time of year,” he says. “I know that when I deliver a lamb, I’m interacting with my livestock in the same way as humans have for thousands of years. It’s a symbiotic relationship between people and sheep, and one that both species continue to depend on.”
On the windy March day I spent at Pryor’s farm, none of his 80 ewes obliged us by going into labour, but Pryor still enthused about the primeval continuities that are in evidence. He has excavated Bronze Age farms laid out in much the same way as his own compartmentalised yard in Lincolnshire, with sequences of increasingly confined enclosures to herd the sheep into. Herding livestock, he points out in The Making of the British Landscape, was probably a skill learned even before domestication. Human hunters had dogs and used them to corral wild animals, so some of the herding skills exhibited by shepherds today may have developed while we were still hunter-gatherers.
On Pryor’s pancake-flat land in Lincolnshire, industrial battery farming couldn’t seem further away. Sheep tug at bales of hay, newly born lambs suckle from their mothers, and ewes burdened with triplets are given some relief by the constant supply of warmed-up bottle-milk which Pryor and his wife, Maisie, devotedly provide throughout the day and night. The sweet smell of straw is all that fills the well-aerated barn that the flock shelters in when they choose. But, I ask Pryor, would a sheep farmer from the Bronze Age, or even from 100 years ago, actually recognise what we are doing on farms today?
Some farmers now employ a “wool-less” breed of “Easy Care” sheep that doesn’t need shearing. Pryor, who sells his wool to the British Wool Marketing Board, laments that “instead we now wear oil – in the form of synthetic fabrics that dominate the clothing industry.” Not to mention cotton, which is the most water- and agrichemical-intensive crop on the planet. Wool is now a barely wanted by-product, and with prices sometimes as low as 60p per fleece, and shearing costing in excess of £1, you can see why.
The meat we eat is different too. To most consumers, eating sheep simply means “lamb” (less than one year old), while hogget (one to two years old) and mutton (more than two years) are either ignored or hidden away in kebabs and shepherds pie. “Personally, hogget’s my favourite,” says Pryor, “it has most of the tenderness of lamb, but a good deal more flavour.”
We also fail to eat a large part of our sheeps’ carcasses – their blood, intestines, stomachs, livers, testicles, brains, heads and feet – all of which used to be nutritious parts of our gastronomic heritage, not least in haggis and other delectable “puddings”. Offal and off-cuts have seen a recent upturn largely thanks to nose-to-tail chefs such as Fergus Henderson, but offal-eating relative to total meat-eating halved in the UK and US over the past 30 years.
Milk is another product most sheep farmers now decline to harvest from their flocks, even though yielding milk is a more efficient conversion of feed inputs into food outputs than meat alone. (It is also responsible for considerable delicacies, including Roquefort cheese.)
Today, most modern livestock farms feed their animals more food – including maize, wheat and soy – than the animals yield back in the form of meat and milk. Instead of turning waste into food, we now turn food into waste.
Pryor’s sheep rely mostly on fresh grass and hay grown on his permanent pastures, which are never ploughed and which are on such rich Fenland silt soils – “the best land in England” – that he has no need to add artificial fertilizer. But even Pryor annually imports four tonnes of high-protein concentrated sheep food to boost the ewes’ diet during pregnancy and lactation. This helps to sustain the increased fecundity that has been the miracle of modern breeding: most of his Lleyn ewes have twins, some have triplets and a few each year have quadruplets. I tasted some of the flock’s ration – a bitter version of All-Bran – that the sheep were keen to get to at feeding time. The extra food also allows lambing to be timed a month earlier, rather than waiting for the spring grass to grow. As Pryor explains, “If I didn’t do it, I simply wouldn’t be able to compete.”
His lambs are sold on at four or so months to a neighbouring farmer for “finishing”, where they are fattened on a further round of cereals before going off to slaughter.
With the pragmatic eye of a farmer and the long-term view of an archaeologist, Pryor readily admits that farmers can hardly be blamed for identifying strategies to feed the nine billion people expected on the planet by 2050. “Without farming we never could have sustained the number of people on the planet, nor the civilisations that have flourished. But now we have to recognise that the growing population is the fundamental problem, and it’s one we are very badly equipped to deal with.”
Pryor has just published The Birth of Modern Britain, the fourth volume in his series examining the vast sweep of British civilisation, and his life’s work has led him to the conclusion that humans have been very bad at making long-term decisions. “But we need to evolve. We’re getting near to the end of the line and I don’t rule out a doomsday scenario.”
For those of us stuck in the present? Eat less meat, have fewer children – and be prepared to pay more for your food. Without this, the 10-millennia-old experiment called farming could come to a sticky end.
Francis Pryor is author of ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ and ‘The Birth of Modern Britain’ (HarperCollins). Tristram Stuart is author of ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’ (Penguin)
Not as silly as they look …
This photograph shows my uncle, Edwin Dargue, with his flock on High Cup Nick, a valley on the western flanks of the North Pennines in Cumbria. Dargue used “hefting” to negate the need for fences.
In this traditional shepherding method, dogs trained a flock to keep to the boundaries of their grazing lands. Once learnt, ewes passed this knowledge on to their offspring.
The system survived until the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak which wiped out swathes of this inherited territorial knowledge.