The wisdom of sheep

I’ve seen a sheep poked by a shepherd. It was on some video from the Hebrides: South Uist, a windswept, Gaelic-speaking, Catholic isle, under the protection of Our Lady. (I’ve lost the link; but I beseech gentle reader to believe me.) It was an appalling moment. I was outraged. It must have taken me a full minute to recover my serenity. It took the sheep, on the other hand, no time at all.

You see, I was identifying with the harmless animal. As sheep go, he was what the English call “unclubbable” — stand-alone, unsheeplike; a goat in sheep’s clothing. The rest of his flock had been collectively sipping their fill at the lochan; “Frederic,” as I shall call him, having also drunk his fill, though a little to the side of them, wandered a few hoof-steps farther away. He adopted what, for a sheep, seemed a philosophical pose: nose raised, as if to receive the celestial ambrosia.

Woolly thoughts. The ruminations, of a ruminant.

Perhaps I should mention there were water lilies on this lochan: among my favourite invasive species. I glimpsed one at the edge of the camera frame. The Darwinists hold them to be primitive plants. As attentive readers must know, I love a basal angiosperm (and am given to pteridomania, too). Frederic must also have noticed them.

The shepherd and his dogs (he had two of them) wanted the little flock to move off in a new direction. The others did not have to be told. (A silent video; the shepherd might have whistled.) Frederic was considering their request. A little prideful, I imagine, he would not be hurried. He’d had enough purposeful walking for the day, not nearly enough lolling about. The other sheep could go, he would stay. No democrat, he was not proposing a vote. He simply did not care what the others were doing.

So the shepherd pokes him one, with his staff; really hard. And right in the ribs. “Ouch,” I remember thinking.

Frederic takes the message now. He does not retaliate, as I would. Indeed, he sprints to catch up with his buddies. (Colleagues?) His reverie is over, and he knows it.

That’s how you do shepherding, I reflect. It isn’t a sentimental trade, as reported in the Arcadian romances, which the city folk read, back when they read things. And I am no proponent of animal rights. Yes, a ram’s gotta do what a ram’s gotta do.

Still, having been poked in the ribs myself, I empathised with the animal. Power goes to these humans’ heads. Sometimes they poke you gratuitously.

In which case, you get poked. That’s the end of it. Retaliation would only make things worse. And besides, if you’re a sheep, what can you retaliate with? Wisdom requires us to ignore most provocations.


I STAND CORRECTED (chronicles). I am persuaded, by a couple of my correspondents, that my view of the inner life of sheep is naïve. They are quite capable of revenge, against a disliked shepherd, who would be unwise, after whacking a delinquent with his stick, to turn his back on the creature. Said delinquent may return at considerable gallop to head-butt the offending party, before slipping into anonymity again. Breeds may be diverse in behaviour, and individuals more various still, but as a general rule sheep have keen peripheral vision, and a formidably horned ram, from the top of the dominance hierarchy, in the rutting season, may weigh hundreds of pounds. He can make his opinion of a perceived rival very plain. By Internet search for “aggressive sheep,” gentle reader may obtain some illustrations.