Details of Ancient Shepherding

Varro’s chapter on sheep care reveals the beauty of shepherding and the expertise ancient shepherds had.

“I shall speak of the earliest branch of animal husbandry, as you claim that sheep were the first of the wild animals to be caught and tamed by man. The first consideration is that these be in good condition when purchased; with respect to age that they be neither too old nor mere lambs, the latter being not yet, and the former no longer profitable — though the age which is followed by hope is better than the one which is followed by death.  As to form, sheep should be full-bodied, with abundant soft fleece, with fibres long and thick over the whole body, especially about the shoulders and neck, and should have a shaggy belly also. In fact, sheep which did not have this our ancestors called ‘bald’ (apicas), and would have none of them. The legs should be short; and observe that the tail should be long in Italy but short in Syria. The most important point to watch is to have a flock  from good stock.  This can usually be judged by two points — the form and the progeny; by the form if the ram have a full coating of fleece on the forehead, have flat horns curving towards the muzzle, grey eyes, and ears overgrown with wool; if they are full-bodied, with wide chest, shoulders, and hind-quarters, and a wide, long tail. A black or spotted tongue is also to be avoided, for rams with such a tongue usually beget black or spotted lambs. The stock is determined by the progeny if they beget handsome lambs.  In purchasing we take advantage of the variation which the law allows, some making more and others fewer exceptions; thus, some purchasers, when the price is fixed by the head, stipulate that two late-born lambs count as one sheep, and in the case of those which have lost their teeth from age, that they also be reckoned two for one. With this exception, the ancient formula is generally employed: when the purchaser has said, ‘They are sold at such a price?’ and the seller has replied, ‘Yes,’ and the money has passed, the purchaser, using the old formula, says:  ‘You guarantee that the sheep in question are perfectly sound, up to the standard of a flock which is perfectly sound, excepting those blind of one eye, deaf, or minae (that is, with belly bare of wool), that they do not come from a diseased flock, and that title may legally pass — that all this may be properly done?’ Even after this has been agreed on, the flock does not change owners unless the money has been counted; and the purchaser still has the right to obtain a judgment against the vendor against the law of purchase and sale if he does not make delivery, even though no money has passed; just as the vendor may obtain a judgment against the purchaser under the same law if he does not make payment.

“I shall discuss next the remaining four points — pasturage, breeding, feeding, health. It is first to be arranged that they feed properly the year round, indoors and out. The fold should be placed in a suitable situation, protected from the wind, and facing the east rather than the south. The ground on which they are to stand should be clear of undergrowth and sloping, so that it can easily be swept and kept clean; for the moisture of the ground injures not only the fleece of the sheep but their hoofs as well, and causes them to become scabby.  When they have been standing for some days, fresh brush should be spread for them, to give them a softer bed and keep them cleaner; for this increases their appetite. Separate enclosures should also be built, so that you may take the pregnant ones away from the flock, and also those that are sick. These measures concern most the flocks which are folded at the steading.  On the other hand, in the case of those that feed on the ranges and are far from cover, hurdles or nets are carried with which to make enclosures in a desolate district, as well as other necessary things; for they usually graze far and wide in all sorts of places, so that frequently the winter grazing grounds are many miles away from the summer.” “I am well aware of that,” said I, “for I had flocks that wintered in Apulia and summered in the mountains around Reate, these two widely separated ranges being connected by public cattle-trails, as a pair of buckets by their yoke.”  “Such flocks, even when they feed in the same locality, are treated differently at different seasons; thus, in summer they begin feeding at daybreak, because at that time the grass, filled with dew, is superior to the grass of midday, which is drier. At sunrise they are driven to water, to make them more eager to graze when they come back.  During the midday heat they are driven under shady cliffs and wide-spreading trees to cool off until the day grows cooler; and they feed again in the evening until sunset. Sheep should be headed in grazing in such a way as to have the sun behind them, as the head of the sheep is its weakest part. A short time after sunset they are driven to water, and then again they graze until it becomes quite dark; for at this time the succulence comes again to the grass. This practice is usually kept up from the rising of the Pleiades until the autumnal equinox.  It is profitable to drive them into stubble fields for two reasons: they get their fill of the ears that have fallen, and make the crop better the next year by trampling the straw and by their dung. The feeding during the rest of the year, winter and spring, varies from this, in that when the frost has melted they are driven out to feed and range the whole day, and it is considered sufficient for them to be driven to water only once, at midday.

“With regard to pasturage the foregoing remarks will suffice; the following apply to breeding. The rams which are to be used for breeding are to be removed from the flock two months ahead, and fed more generously. If barley is fed them on their return to the pens from the pasture, they are strengthened for the work before them. The best time for mating is from the setting of Arcturus to the setting of Aquila; as lambs which are conceived after that time grow undersized and weak. As the period of pregnancy of the sheep is 150 days, the birth thus occurs at the close of autumn, when the air is fairly temperate, and the grass which is called forth by the early rains is just growing. During the whole time of breeding they should drink the same water, as a change of water causes the wool to spot and is injurious to the womb. When all the ewes have conceived, the rams should again be removed, as they are troublesome in worrying the ewes which have now become pregnant. Ewes less than two years old should not be allowed to breed, for the offspring of these is not sturdy and the ewes themselves are injured; and no others are better than the three-year-olds for breeding. They may be protected from the male by binding behind them baskets made of rushes or other material; but they are protected more easily if they feed apart.

“As to feeding: when they begin to bear they are driven into the pens which are kept separate for that purpose; and there the new-born lambs are placed near a fire until they get their strength. They are kept penned for two or three days, while they are learning to recognise their dams and are getting their fill of nourishment. Then the dams go to pasture with the flock, and the lambs are kept penned; when the dams are brought back to them toward evening, the lambs are suckled by them and are again separated to keep them from being trampled by the dams during the night. The same thing takes place in the morning, before the dams go out to pasture, so that the lambs may be filled with milk. When about ten days have passed, stakes are set to which the lambs are fastened at intervals by bark or other smooth ropes, so that the tender young things may not knock the skin off any of their legs while frisking about together during the whole day. If the lamb will not come to its dam’s udder, it should be held close and its lips smeared with butter or hog’s lard and the lips be given the savour of milk. A few days later ground vetch or tender grass is thrown out to them before they go out to pasture and when they come back;  and this feeding is continued until they are four months old. During this time some breeders do not milk the dams; and it is even better not to milk them at all, as they both yield more wool and bear more lambs. When the lambs are removed from the dams, care must be taken that they do not sicken from the separation; and so in feeding they must be coaxed by the daintiness of the food and guarded from being harmed by cold and heat.  They must be driven into the flock only after they no longer miss the dam, because they have forgotten the taste of milk. Lambs should be castrated not earlier than the fifth month, and then not until the heat or the cold has broken. Those they wish to rear for rams are chosen preferably from the young of dams which usually bear twins. The treatment is, in general, the same in the case of jacketed sheep — those which, on account of the excellence of the wool, are jacketed with skins, as is the practice at Tarentum and in Attica, to prevent the fleece from being soiled, in which case it cannot be so well dyed, or washed and bleached.  More care is employed in the case of these than in the case of rough-fleeced sheep, to keep the folds and stalls clean; and so they are covered with a stone pavement so that the urine may not stand anywhere in the stalls. To these the food which they prefer, such as fig leaves, straw, grape dregs, and bran, is fed in moderate quantities, to avoid under-feeding or over-feeding; either of which is harmful to their fattening, while alfalfa and snail-clover are both beneficial, as these fatten them very easily and produce milk.

 “In the matter of health there are many rules; but, as I said, the head shepherd keeps these written down in a book, and carries with him the remedies he may need. The only remaining division is that of number, and some make this larger, others smaller; for there are no natural limits in this respect. Our almost universal practice in Epirus is not to have less than one shepherd to the hundred rough-fleeced sheep, and two to the hundred jacketed sheep.”

Marcus Terentius Varro (116‑27 B.C.), De Re Rustica

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2 Responses to Details of Ancient Shepherding

  1. Kirsty Cardinale says:

    I’m finding this absolutely fascinating (as I’m reading it in the a/c’ed doctor’s office). So much detail. It almost seems like shepherding could have been called a form of art.

    • wmclaa says:

      Agreed…they had it all figured out and they did it more attractively than we do today–sustainable, community-oriented, and in harmony with the rest of the natural (and supernatural) world. That’s why I’m seeking to restore as much of it as I can on our farm.

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