Sheep are more entertaining than you think…


One of the joys of motherhood is permission to watch fab shows like ‘Shaun the Sheep’. Dear Shaun, if you don’t know him, is the plasticene lamb from Wallace & Gromit, now with his own TV programme aimed at toddlers, infants and sheep fans everywhere.

This week, our intrepid hero faced the challenge of Sports Day with a number of other farm animals. This got me thinking about the assumption that all sheep, except plasticene ones, are boring fluff balls which stand around in fields doing nothing.

Herdwick sheep hanging out by the stile

Shaun, for example, has a lot of friends. Real sheep do, too. Whilst we may think they all look alike (and, to be fair, most of them are twins or triplets, so there’s some truth in it), they can apparently recognise the faces of up to fifty other sheep. Certainly, as you’ll know if you’ve ever watched a field of new lambs in spring, ewes can recognise their lambs and give short shrift to any cuckoos looking for a cheeky drink.

My sheep ‘bible’ tells me that the most common names for prize ewes in 2001 were Lucy, Charlotte, Pat, Sam, Pam, Tulip, Marigold, Lulu, Cilla and Ringo. Sadly, despite an American university’s assertion that they have identified sixty-three different sheep phrases by pitch and volume, I still can’t say that I’ve heard sheep call each other by name. Perhaps you will be luckier.

Shaun wasn’t that good a runner on Sports Day, but real sheep can and do. Don’t let all that benign standing about kid you; I’ve seen flocks pelting around fields, racing to the sheep-nut trough, chasing deer out of their field and hurtling for a half-open gate. They are surprisingly nippy given a good incentive.

A Herdwick Sheep

All sheep like mountaineering. Other than the obvious (come here and look up!), all lambs go into training by standing on their long-suffering mothers’ backs, and seek out any even slightly raised area of the field – troughs, hay bales, tree stumps, you name it. It’s not unusual to see half a dozen lambs fighting for standing space on an especially good spot.

I never thought sheep were into swimming, and I still can’t provide any hard evidence. But, one quiet, very hot afternoon, by Friar’s Crag in Keswick, I saw half a field of sheep run flat out to the lake side and immerse up to their knees (do sheep have knees?). Who knows what they do when no-one’s watching?

Shaun had a bit of a crack at the dressing-up race, without much luck. His problem here is that he’s a modern breed of sheep. The older breeds, like Cumbria’s Herdwick, start moulting and stripping off by themselves come June, when it’s fairly common to see a Herdwick with its jumper rolled down to its waist. I guess they’re waiting for us to stop staring before they take their woolly trousers off. Fortunately, the farmer takes the hint at this point and hauls them off for a neat shearing.

If you have Shaun fans at home, why not pop up to the Lakes and introduce them to the real thing? There are nearly three million sheep and only half a million people here, so, wherever you go, you’ll see fields-full ripe for an entertaining tale.

Find cottages in the Lake District.

Sheep events!

The Lakeland Shears International Sheep Shearing Championships is held at the Lakeland Livestock Centre, Cockermouth. This annual event features 1100 Herdwick sheep being sheared competitively by around 110 shearers from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and the Falklands.

Most agricultural shows have sheep and shearing competitions:

See our Review of the Lake District Shows.

Other sheepy places

The Wool Clip is a charming little shop at Caldbeck’s Priest’s Mill, where you can buy Herdwick wool blankets and cushions, knitting kits, lovely kids’ hats and so on. The website offers mail order.

The Flock-Inn in Rosthwaite in Borrowdale is a tiny café that gains top marks for humour with its ‘ewe-nique men-ewe’ (their words not mine!), heavily featuring local Herdwick lamb in stews and burgers.