Art. XX.—Breeding Black Sheep: a Study in Colour.
[Read before the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, 26th October, 1900.]
For many years I have felt a great desire to experiment in an attempt to mate the black ewes which occasionally appear even in well-bred and carefully selected flocks of white sheep of different breeds with the black rams appearing in the same manner, not that I believe in the romantic biblical account of the mild swindle worked by the patriarch Jacob to obtain coloured and spotted cattle in the flocks of his uncle Laban, by placing rods having their bark removed in alternate rings in situations to be seen and noticed by the breeding-flocks when coming to the drinking-places, and thereby bringing about many cases of “mother-marking”; nor do I believe in the necessity for the great precautions taken by the late Mr. Macombie (the one time celebrated breeder of black polled Angus cattle) to have high paling fences erected, so as to prevent his pregnant cows from seeing other beasts of various colours when such might be passing along the contiguous main road, and thereby bring about cases of mother-marking. And, in my opinion, the incident mentioned in connection with this herd, in which several parti-coloured calves were at one season produced the mothers having been influenced by the sight of coloured steers grazing in an adjoining field, is absurd. I think possibly the true cause was that among these supposed steers was an immature bull, which may have entered the adjoining field among the black cows unknown to Mr. Macombie, who would thus conclude that the red-and-white calves afterwards born were the result of an impression received through the eyesight of the mothers when pregnant to a black bull of the Angus breed.
If mother-marking were possible we might expect animals to be born of abnormal colouring—such as green, blue, scarlet, &c.; but we find that any species of animal can only vary in colours or shades of colouring within certain limits. These limits include accidental cases of melanism, or blackness, and albinism, or deficiency of the secretion of the substance named “pigment,” or colouring-matter. True cases of albinism rarely occur among those animals which prove capable of thorough domestication by man. Grey horses, white cattle and sheep, and the Angora goat are not true albinos, for their eyes, horns, and hoofs retain the colouring-pigment; but rabbits, ferrets,
rats, and mice produce true albinos, as seen in their pink eyes, there being no colouring-matter to hide the minute pink veins which ramify in all directions in the eye-ball; and these true albinos may be said to be held in captivity by man, rather than as being domesticated by him. It seems obvious that such animals as are readily domesticated are in like manner capable of assuming other colours than those of their wild prototype within certain limits, and especially the habit of becoming pied or marked with white. Some, too, lose all colouring-matter in the hair, although perhaps still retaining a ground-colour in the skin.
For some years I kept white bulls—father, son, and grandson—and when carrying the short summer coat, or hair, each of them showed a dark dappling on the skin when viewed at short range, but none of them had colouring on the ears. I never heard of an albino ox, but I believe such is sometimes found among horses, although I am unable to name any authority for such belief.
We hear of albinism among cats, but in such cases the eyes are of a blue colour, and they are said to be invariably deaf. In the dog I know of no case of pure albinism, the eyes always retaining their colour. Of these two animals—the cat and dog—the cat easily takes up a wild roaming life and becomes feral, as is indicated by this affinity to albinism.
Among poultry we have, by domestication, introduced white hens, ducks, and geese. The latter, however, are seldom a perfect white, which indicates a less perfect stage of domestication, although the so-called Chinese geese, having the raised knob at the base of the bill, are a pure-white bird, and thus show a period of longer domestication than those of Europe.
In a state of nature we have the white swan; or has the swan's colour altered under the hands of man? We know that the swans on the River Thames belonged to the Municipality, and that the young birds at the coming round of the season were pinioned and had placed on them an ownership mark. This custom is historical, and dates back into the long ago. Undoubtedly we have the opposite colour to white—namely, black—in the wild black swan, of Australia, and which now roams wild through New Zealand. The ancients fully believed a black swan to be an impossibility, as will be seen by the old Latin proverb, expressive of incredulity, “Rara avis in terris, nigroque simillima cygno” (a scarce bird in the world, and very like a black swan).
The various colourings on one and the same feather seen on many kinds of birds has always been beyond my comprehension. For instance, the tail-feathers of the huia were so prized by the old-time Maori for head-ornaments that special
flat-shaped boxes, having their lids elaborately carved, were made to contain these kura, or valuables. At the feather's tip there is an oval of pure white, about ⅓in., the main feather being a jet black. This marking is no seasonal or accidental occurrence, for each bird has its tail-feathers so marked, whilst there is no white on any other of its feathers, which are of a black colour. Truly we have much yet to learn on this subject.
Notice the colouring of the wild rabbit—reddish-grey on top and white underneath its belly, as we roughly term it. Some one says this is the case because the lower parts are away from the stronger light of day; but how about the tail, which is generally carried so as to have the white underside turned upward to view? This exposure of the white part of its scut by the rabbit so attracted the notice of that eminent naturalist Charles Darwin that he speaks of the habit as probably being of great service in guiding other rabbits, when fleeing before a common enemy, in the right direction to reach the warren or cover wherein a chance of safety existed. It would be rough on the followers if the leading rabbit was so flustered by fear that he carried his “signal-flag” in the direction away from home. But our question is this: Why is the scut of the rabbit on the upper half a rusty-grey colour and on the lower half a pure white? What guides the colouring-matter to the one part and prevents its approach to the other part? The whole scut, when divested of its hairy covering, is almost as insignificant in volume as the tail-feather of a small bird.
I have occasionally seen notice taken of locks of wool from coloured or black sheep which along their length showed different shades of colouring—perhaps among the darker bands would come one perfectly white. Such variations might originate from climatic changes or from an abundance or scarcity of feed at various seasons. I have seen this commented on in Australian newspapers. I have never seen samples of this myself, but my first coloured ram, which was of a rusty-buff colour, and was in consequence named “Tanner,” was, when shorn, of a silvery-grey colour, although he would resume his original colour when the wool began to grow again.
What is the cause of saddle or collar galls or sores, when healed, having white hair growing upon them? You will sometimes see a black-or chestnut-coloured horse with white places where once these sores have been. I remember when a child seeing a boy who, though he had reddish hair had at one side of his head quite a patch of pure-white hairs. From such an occurrence we may suppose the personal name of “Whitelock” originated.
We know by induction that the ordinary domestic duck is a domesticated form of the European wild duck, the male of which we term a “mallard.” The mallard has this special peculiarity: that during winter and spring he is most beautifully coloured, the head and neck being of a glossy green; the breast dark-chestnut; the back light-grey, as of white feathers plentifully dotted or marked with a dark shade (possibly we might name it slate-colour); the tail and tail-coverts blackish, with several dark feathers curling up and backward; and an approximate colouring to this is seen in some breeds of the domestic drake. But during the seasons of summer and autumn all this bright colouring is lost, the colouring of the male bird then approaching that of the female; even the white ring around the neck between the green and chestnut colours is absent. How is this change of colour brought about? The change is gradual, because feathers of the new colour are seen among those of the former plumage. But I do not think the bird moults or sheds the feathers, for the strong flight-or pen-feathers certainly remain in position when the bird takes on the more brilliant plumage. The flight-feathers are annually changed during late summer, when the young birds of the season and many of the older birds are unable to fly owing to these pen-feathers being absent. At this stage they are termed “flappers,” and are easily caught. We can see this gradual change of colouring in tame birds having the mallard colours, and it causes us to wonder whether they really change or shed their body-plumage. If we take either the Aylesbury or the white call duck we see no colour-change, and therefore we never have any suspicion that they moult twice during the year. On the other hand, the drake's curled tail-feathers are not visible when the bird is in autumn dress: are they shed, or do they lose the curl and lay flat along the other feathers of the tail?
Young ducks and other birds in their first plumage are all approximate in colour to that of the female or mother bird, and some do not take on the colours of the male until the ensuing spring, yet they have the inherent faculty or possession, held in abeyance, of the colours of the male; and, what is a still more singular thing, a female bird may for years be clad in appropriate female costume, but should ovarian disease cause her to be unfertile she is capable of putting on the dress of the male. Here we have birds carrying the unchanged or same cuticle, but capable of producing feathers other than those suitable to their sex. Such are often seen among domestic fowls and pheasants. I have also had two instances among my hybrid ducks, which had lived to a considerable age: these ducks also carried the curled tail-feathers, but one never took on the green head and neck of the male.
The European grey-linnet becomes much brighter in colours in early spring, but is said not to do so when caged.
Take special notice and you will see no change of colour during any season among domestic ducks, the drakes alone having the possibility of brighter colours. The drakes can be known at any season by the green colour of their beaks.
No doubt learned men have already studied and come to a reasonable conclusion on this matter of colour-change, but, if so, I have never had the luck to read their writings in explanation. Therefore, if I am behind the age in expressing wonder and surprise that these colour-changes are possible, I beg to be excused.
In ducks we have two pure breeds which, from the effect of melanism, are lustrous-black in colour. The larger of these is very similar in form and size to the ordinary domestic duck, and, if I remember rightly, is named the “Cuyagua”; the second is of smaller size and capable of flight, and is termed “Buenos Ayres,” or “East Indian.” Both breeds possess the curled tail-feathers as in the mallard, which is a sufficient indication of their being a domestic form or offshoot of Anas boschos, the European or northern wild duck.
Before entering upon an account of my personal experience in breeding a flock of black sheep I will make mention of information obtained elsewhere. Mr. Thomas McWhirter, the manager of Morven Hills Station, near Tarras, Otago, in answer to my inquiries, says that about six years ago there were about a hundred black sheep on the station, and he decided to separate them from the white sheep of the flocks and attempt to raise a black flock from them, and that now (1899) they number about a thousand head of black merinos. The first year there were a few white lambs born, but this was probably caused by a white ram accidentally straying into the flock. Some of the ewes were spotted, in which case they invariably had spotted lambs. Many of the lambs have a small white patch on the forehead and also have the tail white, the body being of a whole black colour. After the first year no white lambs were produced, and, although many experienced sheep-farmers scoffed at the idea of a black ewe having a black lamb, the result proved that, provided both parents were coloured, their progeny would be coloured also. Mr. McWhirter, in answer to my question, “Have any of the black merinos a small oval white spot below either eye, as I find to be mostly present in the Lincoln-merino cross ?” replied that none of his sheep had these spots on the face. This is worthy of notice. The success of this flock is amply proved by the returns. Last season Mr. McWhirter had ten bales of black wool, which, as it was a larger line than usual, commanded some little attention, and the price realised was
10½d. per pound, which was equal to 1s. a pound for white wool, because the latter is always skirted and classed, whereas the black fleece was rolled up just as taken from the sheep's back, the belly-pieces being also left in. As Mr. McWhirter says, the unskirted black wool sold for equal value to the samples or bales containing his best skirted white wool. For example, white wool divides, when skirted by the roller at the wool-table, thus: Belly pieces, say, 6d. per pound; first pieces, 8d. per pound; stained pieces, 5d. per pound; the remaining fleece, 1s. per pound; fragments or locks, 4d. per pound. Now, all these inferior portions were included in the black fleece, unsorted, and realised 10 ½d. per pound.
The Queensland Agricultural Journal gives an account of a black merino flock of sheep owned by Mr. Allan, of Brae-side, Queensland, which was started twenty-two years ago. Mr. Allan noticed that in spite of drastic culling black sheep occurred in all flocks, and was struck with the idea that possibly sheep were originally black. To test this theory he put pure merino sires to black merino ewes, and found that right from the initiation the experiment was a complete success, the lambs dropped being all black. An almost universal characteristic of these sheep is a small white spot on the forehead and another on the tip of the tail. Mr. Allan continued to breed from black sires and ewes for many years until the flock reached 2,000, at which it remained for some years. It has now been reduced to 20 rams, 600 ewes, and 250 wethers and weaners—a total of 870. The blackness of these sheep does not stop at the wool, but extends to the skin also, and Mr. Allan makes it a sine qua non that the tongue and the roof of the mouth should be black as well. The flesh of the animal is darker in colour and sweeter than that of the white sheep, and has a distinctly “gamey” flavour, akin to the taste of venison. It is thought that these sheep are much hardier and less liable to disease than the white ones. At the London sales in 1885 Braeside black wool brought 1s. 6 ½d. per pound for the fleece all round in the grease—that is to say, it realised just double what white wool of a similar character grown on the same country brought at that date. The black wool was principally used at that time—and still is—for undyed underclothing under Dr. Jaeger's system; also, there is a demand at times for black wool for certain continental religious orders who have to wear undyed woollen clothing. Latterly it fell in price through successful dyed imitations being used. Last December the Braeside black wool brought 10 ¾d. in Brisbane for the fleece. The black sheep cut from ½lb. to ¾lb. less wool than the white ones. There is less yolk or grease in the black wool, and hence there may be equal bulk of wool-fibre to compare with a white-woolled fleece of a
heavier weight. This flock is mentioned by Bruni in his work “Sheep-breeding in Australia.”
There are several other flocks of black merinos in Australia, the best known being those of Mr. W. A. Murray, Cappeedee, South Australia, and Mr. H. Beattie, Mount Aitkin. Mr. P. McFarland also had a black flock at Barooga, New South Wales.
My own coloured flock was commenced about ten years ago from a mixed lot of merino and Lincoln-merino ewes which I obtained by writing a circular letter to many of the principal sheep-owners in Hawke's Bay, asking for the gift of their black or coloured ewe lambs for the season. Messrs. Nelson Brothers, of the meat-freezing works at Tomoana, kindly offered to receive and paddock any black lambs forwarded for this purpose in mobs of fat wethers sent to their works until such time as a drive of black lambs should be collected together. Those collected, including some brought to Mr. John Harding's station at Mount Vernon, Waipukurau, made a total of ninety, which I brought on to my present location at Wimbledon. These ewes were bred to a reddish-coloured crossbred ram obtained for me by Mr. J. N. Williams, of Frimley, and the lambs of the first season— the produce of the black or coloured ewes, sired by the reddish-coloured ram—were all so-called black lambs. A few were parti-coloured or greyish, and several were tan-coloured, but there was not a single white lamb among them. Of the lighter coloured, or greys, it was noticeable that the lower parts of the body and the legs were of a distinctly darker hue than the back and sides, giving them the appearance of a wet water-mark such as would result from wading through discoloured water: their ears and faces were mostly a good black, and below either eye was a small oval or lozenge-shaped spot of white. These white marks may possibly be found to occur as special marks among one of the feral forms of the genus Ovis, and, if so, might thereby show a connection by descent of the domestic sheep from the feral Ovidæ having similar white spots on the face.
Charles Darwin and others specially discuss the subject of those singular circular tan spots seen on many different breeds of dogs, but are unable to point to any feral Canidæ carrying similar tan spots. One writer in Nature went so far as to suggest that the tan spots on the dog's forehead were specially designed to give the seeming of watchful eyes when the dog was sleeping, forgetting that the dog when at rest is mostly coiled in a circular form with the face turned inward.
For upwards of ten years I have continued to breed these black sheep, using black rams with a strong infusion of the Lincoln blood, and with the exception of one or two cases,
which were easily traceable to a black ewe getting away in the season to a neighbour's white ram, not a white lamb has been born in the flock. Last shearing the black flock numbered 1,300. When using a black ram to white ewes some of the lambs are white, but about half the number are black.
Last autumn I used white Lincoln rams, and the black ewes have now following them pure-white lambs, many of which are twins or pairs. There are a few black lambs, about four to every hundred white ones. Six pairs of twins have compromised matters, in that one of the two is white and the other black.
The reason of my changing the colour of my flock is that my neighbours sell their white wool for 2d. per pound over the price given for black wool of the Lincoln type, which is a vast difference now wool is selling at such a low figure; and to produce fat sheep for the freezing business it is necessary to breed away from the merino, whose wool is of more value when black and which is made up into the finer clothing materials.
You will see from this result that by using white rams in two years’ time my flock will be entirely changed from black to white, notwithstanding that the ewes have some ten generations of black ancestors.
I will modify my description of the faces of the lighter-coloured sheep of my flock, in that these have light-coloured marks or bending stripes on a dark ground, and the outer edges of the lips of a light colour. These marks give the face a peculiar finished, perfect, or natural appearance, as of the type of a feral ancestor. The mouth, tongue, and inner skin of the lips are black.
Since this paper was written I have met with the following paragraph in Nature of the 28th June, 1900, page 201:—
” In a communication to the latest issue of the ‘ Proceedings of the Philadelphia Academy,’ Mr. Witmer Stone shows that the various species of eider-duck, as well as the red-breasted merganser, have a 'summer moulting plumage’ analogous to that assumed by the mallard after the breeding season. As in the last-named species, this plumage lasts only during the time when the birds are unable to fly, owing to the shedding of their flight-feathers, and its dull colouration is doubtless for the purpose of rendering them as inconspicuous as possible during this period. The author calls attention to the circumstance that the feathers of this temporary dress, like those of the first plumage of all birds, are very inferior in their structure. The moulting plumage of the eider-duck has hitherto been considered as the ordinary dress of immature birds.”
So far as my own observation extends, I am of opinion that
most or all of the Anatidæ become “flappers” in the early autumn, owing to the loss of the pen-feathers. In New Zealand the paradise-duck (Casarca variegata) and the mountain blue-duck (Hymenolemus malacorhynchus?) I have seen as flappers, but they undergo no change in colour during that period. But I have no recollection of ever seeing the mature grey-duck (Anas superciliosa) without flight-feathers, but this might be owing to their retirement to large water areas. If a duck is sitting on a second hatching of eggs the time of moulting is deferred, which is a singular instance of adaptation to circumstances.