Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 23, 1890
This text is also available in PDF
(1 MB) Opens in new window
– 207 –

Art. XXV.—Further Notes on Coloured Sheep.

[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Society, 11th August, 1890.]

Plate XXIIa.

The sheep-breeder may say, “To what good purpose is the consideration of peculiar or out-of-the-way forms of sheep,

[Footnote] † See vol. xxi., art. liii.

– 208 –

which are not likely to produce commercial products?” This shows a want of knowledge of such things as are beyond their immediate range of vision; for in the Bradford wool-market considerable quantities of coloured wools are sold—black, brown, grey, and yellow—imported from the south of Russia and other places. We here only see the wool-circulars referring to our own products or those competing with them.

Suppose we can find a distinct breed of sheep, having such characteristics as lead to the conclusion that they are direct descendants of the original sheep first domesticated. This at once brings us a link in evidence nearer to the sheep's fourtoed fossil ancestor, from which all our domestic animals having double hoofs are considered to have descended. The two immature hoofs at the back of the shank-bone of the sheep, cow, and goat are taken to be rudiments of other two claws or hoofs, which have shrunk to their present diminutive size by generations of disuse, proving of no material service to the animal under changed conditions of life: for instance, when the surface of the earth, or their place of habitation, became more solid to travel over, and so required less spread of foot.

Fossil remains of animal life give evidence that reptiles, and after them animals, all had five toes—at least, on their front feet: one toe after another being gradually lost, in the course of ages, from disuse; the blood, or nourishing agent, flowing naturally by preference to those toes in greater use, thereby the useless members became smaller and gradually lost. In the horse only one toe remains; signs of two others are in the splint-bones at either side of the cannon-bone, hidden beneath the skin. This gives a curious instance of variation working by two different plans to effect the same result: in the horse the atrophy commencing at the hoof, or free end of the claw, and leaving the splints, which are the remnants of the second and fourth supplementary cannonbones; but in the cow, &c., the atrophy commencing from the reverse end, there remain no splint-bones, but two diminutive hoofs, which are of no practical use to the animal. You will the more readily understand this by remembering these bones correspond with those in the human hand between the wrist and knuckle-joints—the two middle fingers agreeing with the bones contained in the two hoofs.

There are six or more animals in a natural state which are classed as sheep, but writers have been unable as yet to trace the descent of the domestic sheep from any one of these wild species: the argali and mufflon in Europe, thär and burrell in the Himalayas, ammon and poli in Asiatic Tartary—this latter named after its discoverer, Marco Polo, one of the earliest travellers who have left fairly reliable records of their

Picture icon

To illustrate Papers by T. White

– 209 –

adventures. The bighorn, or Rocky Mountain sheep, of North America, the musk-ox and the yak of Thibet—these two, inhabiting districts right apart, but living close to the regions of perpetual snows, seem connecting-links between the ox and sheep.

In Scribner's Magazine of February, 1889, is a picture, said to be taken from an instantaneous photograph, of the bighorn in their native wilds. In this photograph of a ram and two ewes the ram has a wonderful resemblance to a picture in an illustrated paper of a live specimen of the burrell presented to the Prince of Wales when visiting India some years ago. “The bighorn is in colour a dusky-brown, too nearly resembling that of the rocks through which they move to secure clearness of outline in a picture taken at a long distance.” Unfortunately the tails of all three figures are hidden from view. The ears are broad and rounded at the tip, somewhat resembling those of a calf. The horns of the ram are very thick at the base, inclined slightly outward and backward, with one gradual curve only. The ewes have small upright horns, with the tips slightly turned backward, much the same as those seen in the chamois. The ibex and chamois are by many considered the originals of our domestic goats, or a link between the goat and the deer. Here would come a question whether they shed their horns annually, as do the true deer, or retain them for life.

Of domestic sheep the Wallachian is worthy of remark. It has a pair of upright spiral horns of considerable length, which, when viewed in a direct line, give the animal a great resemblance to the fabulous unicorn. Like the Cashmir goat, this sheep is covered with long, straight hair, having an undercoat of extremely fine wool. This latter is greatly valued.

Here is a lady's description of sheep used in packing goods in the Himalayan mountains, in India, an extract from Chambers's Journal, 2nd November, 1889: “A long string of sheep passes us on their way to the plains, each with its little pack on its back. They have come all the way from Bhotan, across the highest passes of the Himalayas. They carry down borax and salt, and take rice and other grain on the return journey, being altogether about three months on the road.” Perhaps if they grow any wool they will leave that behind also.

This extract from “The Mule-track on the Mountains” gives a good sample of word-painting: “But it is not only still life on my mule-path. Suddenly, perhaps, round a turn in the road, a little flock of sheep comes hurrying down. They are very small gentle creatures, with long soft hair (it can hardly be called wool), dark-brown or cream-white. Their wild-looking shepherd, with his dark Italian face, has a word of greeting for the stranger as he passes by. One day one of

– 210 –

these flocks was led by a tiny child, with cropped head, a frock down to his heels, and a branch of mimosa in his hand. He walked first among the sheep, their little faces crowding and pushing softly round him. He might have been David, leading his father's sheep for the first time out of Bethlehem. Then there are women in bright handkerchiefs, picking up olives under the tree; and one often meets a mule or large ass, the rightful owner of the path, stepping down with a gingerly grace over the stones. He bears on his back an immense load of sticks and grass, or a little barrel of wine slung on each side. He probably has one ear set forward, the other back, to show that no advantage must be taken of his goodnature, and he looks at the stranger with a doubtful, intelligent eye, while his master or mistress gives a friendly nod and ‘Bon jour.’” This is very well described, you will allow, and must be by a lady also, I should think.

The report of Consul-General Playfair upon the commerce and agriculture of Algeria, last year, contains very much interesting information relating to wool and sheep. The following is his description of the wool produced in Algeria: “Algerian wool may be divided into two categories, Arab and Berber. The former is generally of a short fibre, sometimes moderately, rarely, if ever, very long, and regulated by the climatic influence of the localities where the sheep are reared. It is always short on the high plateaux, and becomes longer as the sheep descend into more fertile and better-watered regions, but in both instances it is fine wool of a fine quality, and without any hairy appearance—the relic, it may be, of the now lost Merino stock, supposed to have been introduced by the Romans, and subsequently perfected by the Moors of Venice, who certainly drew their original supplies of wool and of sheep from North Africa. The Kabyle or Berber wool, on the other hand, is entirely different: it is hard, coarse, inelastic, and almost resembles goats' hair. Algerian wool has been much discredited by fraudulent practices to increase its weight; nevertheless it is good in quality, and readily purchased, while the sheep themselves are eagerly sought for in France, where from three to four millions are sent every year. No doubt, neither Algerian wool nor Algerian sheep are of the first quality, but the latter possess qualities which might possibly disappear were the race modified to any appreciable extent. They can resist the greatest extremes of heat and cold, of abundant and deficient pasturage, absolute want of care, and the long fatiguing marches necessary to send them to the port of embarkation.”

A Russian writer says of the Caucasian wool: “It may be divided into four classes. First, fine wool, which has hitherto been disposed of in Moscow, as it is unsuitable for other

– 211 –

markets, being too short in the staple for combing. Secondly, the wool known as Pschawa Touches, and Touchiyi: this description is cleaner than the other kinds, and only comprises 5 per cent. of black and grey; the second clip is more sought after, as being cleaner. Thirdly, Tarakamas wool, which is produced in the Tartar districts, and yields 30 per cent. of white, the rest being black and coarse. This description is mostly bought for America, though a considerable portion of the second clip is retained in the country for making carpets. Fourthly, the intermediary description, more or less white, and comprising less grey than the Tarakamas. Besides those named are the Elisabethpol, which yields about 40 per cent. white; and the Chakcheran, giving 60 per cent. white.”

In the New South Wales Court, at the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition, held this year, samples of Bagdad brown wool were on exhibit with other wools.

“One of the most striking breeds in the show [Paris Exhibition] was the Solognot, a small, light, and rather leggy sheep, with a long thin tail, and face and legs of a rich red. A pen of Swiss two-shear ewes, jet-black all over, attract attention, mainly by the elongation of the neck and legs.”—Live-stock Journal, 19th July, 1889.

A Five-horned Ram.—“The most interesting thing about the premises of the London Docks on a Wednesday lately was a remarkable ram hidden away in a corner on the deck of a ship. What was strange about the ram was his horns. He had five of them—two gracefully curling from the points which horns usually select as most convenient, immediately below them were two more, and below these one formed a kind of rung which led up to the rest. The ram looked proud of these horns. He held his head aloft, and seemed anxious to have them duly noticed. He was as playful as a kitten, and, according to one of the sailors in charge, takes to rum as readily and as naturally as any one of the crew. He then displays a number of antics altogether out of keeping with his general decorum. He is twelve months old, and comes from the Persian Gulf; he is remarkably small, with wool of exceedingly dirty yellow, and his legs are brown.”— Newspaper cutting.

St. Kilda Sheep.—“In the report of the sheep classes at Windsor, in the new number of the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, page 699, is an account by Lord Moreton of the St. Kilda four-horned sheep. He writes: ‘They are said to be descendants of sheep which got ashore from an Armada ship wrecked on the island. Although my sheep have been bred for several generations in England, they are still inclined to be wild. I find the mutton excellent, though the joints are small. I get from 31b. to

– 212 –

41b. of wool of good quality. As a matter of fact, although called black sheep, they are really brown… But it does not seem to be remembered that these sheep have a peculiar habit of feeding freely on seaweed, so maintaining themselves in the winter time. The Armada legend is brought to account for every variation of horse, cattle, or sheep. But there seems little doubt that the St. Kilda sheep represent a descent from the wild Ovis, and therefore may have some capacity for crossing purposes.’”—Signed “G.,” Live-stock Journal, 20th December, 1889.

I therefore wrote to Lord Moreton for further particulars, and he very courteously replied as follows:—

“Sarsden House, Chipping Norton, Oxon,”
12th May, 1890.

Dear Sir,—A few days ago I received your letter about St. Kilda sheep, and will now answer it. St. Kilda is an island some distance from the coast of Scotland, and is, I believe, very rocky. I obtained my sheep at the sale that took place on the death of Mr. Staniforth, of Storrs, Windermere, a well-known shorthorn breeder. He had quite a flock of these sheep, and, being, as I said, dispersed at his death, they got scattered over England. They are small sheep. Although spoken of as black, in reality they are of a very dark brown. I am unable to say what the value of their wool is, as I never sell any, but have it made up for my own wearing. The sheep generally have four horns, sometimes only two; at present I own a ram with seven horns. I have never heard of one with so many as this. The pictures you sent me are very like St. Kildas, especially about the head. I regret that I am unable to send you a photograph of my sheep. I have often tried to photograph them—without success, however, as they are too wild.

“Yours truly,


“Moreton”.

The pictures sent to Lord Moreton were taken from photographs of the Chatsworth spotted four-horned sheep, described in my former paper,* and which I claim as descendants of the original British sheep.

From the inherent wildness of the St. Kilda sheep, and from the Canons Ashby spotted sheep (described previously),* when crossed with a white breed, producing black lambs, we have evidence of affinity between these two breeds, and this leaves little doubt but that they are remnants of the original or first introduced sheep of Britain.

I had laid plans to communicate with Professor Boyd Dawkins to inquire if any fossil remains of British sheep had been found showing that the possession of four horns was

[Footnote] * Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. xxi., p. 402.

– 213 –

customary. Unfortunately, my communication is delayed or gone astray. I particularly reverence Professor Dawkins as the man who, long years after I had gone to New Zealand, dug up bones of the sabre-toothed lion, cave-bear, hyena, and others in an overhanging-rock cave, where, when I was a child, an old man used to stable his donkey. This was at Cresswell Craigs, on the boundary of Notts and Derbyshire.

Some twelve months ago a very good picture appeared in the Town and Country Journal, Sydney, page 541, of African sheep at the Zoological Gardens, Berlin. Three animals are represented. One is of uniform black, or dark colour, and seems to have no tail—possibly it has been cut off; fair-sized horns, bending backwards close to the head, short hair, and welldefined mane of long hairs, and long hair hanging down between the brisket and the throat. I am uncertain of the sex; it is either a ewe or wether. The ears appear to droop. The buck is dark-coloured from the top of the rump to the fore part of the shoulder; neck and thighs white; a smooth tail, white, nearly reaching to the hocks; ears white, standing out at right angles; horns as previously described; a thick rough mane and long fringe under the neck; rest of body smooth. The third (evidently a half-grown lamb) has dark and white patches of smooth hair all over, white tail, ears slightly inclined downwards, no horns; and is lying at rest. Part of the description given is as follows: “The colour of these sheep is always black-and-white, the white forming the groundwork for the black round spots which are found upon the nose, eyes, ears, and just above the hoofs. The shape of the specimens here illustrated is rather small and graceful; the profile is straight; the finely-shaped ears stand out horizontally from the head; the line of-the back is even; and the tail is of medium length. The body is curved; the limbs are slender, very similar to those of a deer. The hair is short and even, except on the buck, and even then it grows long only on the under-side of the neck. The large coloured spots which are distributed over the body are essentially black, and characteristic. The Cameroon sheep are only useful as food; but they are considered of great importance among the black population on account of their easy-fattening qualities.” Now, the only spot I detect is one black spot round the eye of the buck. One animal is entirely black, the other two have black and white in large areas, not at all to be called spots. The picture is very well done, and must give a faithful resemblance of the originals.

The African fat-tailed sheep are remarkable: the tail alone is described as weighing from 201b. to 301b., being equal in weight to the animal's body, and was considered a great delicacy, having the flavour of marrow. They are seldom met

– 214 –

with now. I was making inquiries through a southern paper. asking for information about hybrids between sheep and goats, when a gentleman wrote me of these sheep, saying that they were a cross between the old Dutch goat and the sheep. He sent me a sample cut from a rug made from their skins by the blacks at a mission-station. This piece of skin was covered with short, shining, white hairs, with a few very slight fibres slightly curled, requiring close inspection to detect. This resembled greatly the skin of the Angora when in summer coat. The gentleman had never seen the sheep themselves, as they were mostly superseded by the merino; but his description of the tail, and flavour of the same when cooked, though gained by hearsay, was quite correct.

I will now make a few remarks on peculiarities I have noticed among domestic sheep:—

In black and coloured crossbred and long-wool sheep a small white spot below the eye is rarely absent; but I believe that black merinos never show these two spots. Can these spots be inherited from a wild ancestor? If wanting in merinos it would point to two different wild forms or species from which these two breeds are separately descended.

It is a singular thing that we have no breed of domestic sheep with rudimentary tails, considering that man has for many generations been in the habit of excising that member, and that their near allies the goat and deer rejoice in short upturned tails like a rabbit. We have both cats and dogs naturally with short tails.

Here are two instances of inheritance which have been observed by myself. When assisting at the annual ear-marking of lambs at my neighbour's (Mr. Low, of Von River, Lake Wakatipu) I found a lamb with both ears so small that it was impossible to place the proper ear-mark thereon. On looking carefully through the sheep in the same pen I saw the mother, having the same extremely small ears as in the case of the lamb. At another ear-marking years afterwards, on the Glengarrie Station, Hawke's Bay, we were unable to ear-mark a lamb, for the one ear was wanting entirely, nor was there any orifice leading to the organ of sound within the head. Remembering my former experience, I soon found the mother, possessing a like defect.

From the Eyre Mountains, Otago, I once mustered in a mob of merinos and their produce which had been lost for some years. Among them was a young four-tooth ram, unear-marked, having small horns little larger than those of a ewe, and without convolutions or roughness. The wool was very white, having no yolk, fine, also straight, having no curl or spiral in the fibre. Unfortunately, this sheep was lost soon afterwards. From such a sheep the celebrated Mauchamp

– 215 –

merino, of France, is said to have originated. In the same district I found lambs with their hoofs bitten off, supposed to be done by rats. One in particular surprised me. As I was walking on the hill, doing shepherd's duty, the little thing came walking towards me with such a smooth and peculiar action that I was transfixed with wonder. On looking closely I found that it was walking on the two fore or front legs only, the body being balanced by projecting the hind legs forward on each side of the front ones. In most cases, the hoofs after a time grew into perfect form again. But whether this particular lamb survived or not I cannot say.

On the Canterbury Plains in the early days, when all the runs were unfenced for many years, we used to find cabbagetree or hermit sheep. These were merino sheep living alone, and having a cabbage-tree or flax-bush for a mate or companion; and they could not be made to leave, always keeping within a certain radius of that special tree, which they considered their especial friend. They would be without ear-mark, having long tails and several years' wool, mostly reaching to the ground. They could never be made to associate with flock sheep, and, being very fat when found, were generally carted home and killed.

Now comes a most extraordinary account of a wether sheep suckling and rearing a lamb. Mr. Robert Wiffin, my first informant, said, “It brought it up, and well, too.” Several in the district speak to this as a fact. Mr. Mark Franklin and others examined the sheep when it was in for shearing. This was at Mr. John Roberts's Tautane Station, when Mr. Pillans was temporary manager.

So, wonderful things are seen and lost, for in our life-struggle we have to attend to more immediate wants, and in most cases lose sight of the rare and curious freaks which occur at long intervals among our surroundings.

The accompanying drawing (Plate XXIIa.) was copied from the photograph of a Chatsworth sheep by my friend and correspondent, Mr. E. Mervyn Wrench, and is some of his last work, he having since “passed through the valley of the shadow of great darkness to that better land.” It is identical with the picture remarked on by Lord Moreton as a fair resemblance to a St. Kilda sheep.

P.S.—The following letter has since been received from Professor Boyd Dawkins:—

“Woodhurst, Fallowfield, Manchester,”
28th June, 1890.

Dear Sir,—In answer to your question, forwarded to me by Miss White, as to ancient British sheep, I cannot say more than that I have never seen any four-horned sheep of the

– 216 –

Neolithic or Bronze Ages in Britain. I have, however, seen several four-horned skulls from refuse-heaps belonging to the Middle Ages. There were two distinct breeds in Britain from the Neolithic Age to the close of the Roman occupation—one small and like the Hebridean sheep, and another much coarser and thicker in the legs. Both these were two-horned.

“I am, &c.,

W. Boyd Dawkins.“

As animals in a state of nature are seldom or never equipped with useless duplicate pairs of horns, the extra horns on these animals are probably the result of variation under domestication.

The party of Algerian Arabs now on exhibition in London in place of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, have brought with them goats having four horns. These are the first of the kind I have heard of; and, the sheep and goat being very closely allied, such an incident is worthy of notice in this paper. From the remains of four-horned sheep appearing about the time of the Middle Ages, perhaps they were brought to England by the Saxon or Danish colonists. It would be interesting to know if signs of such sheep are found in the Danish middens.

A previous remark about the St. Kilda sheep eating seaweed is probably an error, for I fancy St. Kilda is difficult of approach, having no beach. Likely this would be a habit of the Hebridean sheep. A native of those parts once told me that it is customary to feed horses on potatoes during the severe winter season which is experienced in those exposed islands.