Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton, 1861 - Chapter 14 - General Observations on the Sheep and Lamb

[... back to menu for this book]



    678. OF ALL WILD or DOMESTICATED ANIMALS, the sheep is, without exception, the most useful to man as a food, and the most necessary to his health and comfort; for it not only supplies him with the lightest and most nutritious of meats, but, in the absence of the cow, its udder yields him milk, cream, and a sound though inferior cheese; while from its fat he obtains light, and from its fleece broadcloth, kerseymere, blankets, gloves, and hose. Its bones when burnt make an animal charcoal--ivory black--to polish his boots, and when powdered, a manure for the cultivation of his wheat; the skin, either split or whole, is made into a mat for his carriage, a housing for his horse, or a lining for his hat, and many other useful purposes besides, being extensively employed in the manufacture of parchment; and finally, when oppressed by care and sorrow, the harmonious strains that carry such soothing contentment to the heart, are elicited from the musical strings, prepared almost exclusively from the intestines of the sheep.
    679. THIS VALUABLE ANIMAL, of which England is estimated to maintain an average stock of 32,000,000, belongs to the class already indicated under the ox,--the Mammalia; to the order of Rumenantia, or cud-chewing animal; to the tribe of Capridae, or horned quadrupeds; and the genus Ovis, or the "sheep." The sheep may be either with or without horns; when present, however, they have always this peculiarity, that they spring from a triangular base, are spiral in form, and lateral, at the side of the head, in situation. The fleece of the sheep is of two sorts, either short and harsh, or soft and woolly; the wool always preponderating in an exact ratio to the care, attention, and amount of domestication bestowed on the animal. The generic peculiarities of the sheep are the triangular and spiral form of the horns, always larger in the male when present, but absent in the most cultivated species; having sinuses at the base of all the toes of the four feet, with two rudimentary hoofs on the fore legs, two inguinal teats to the udder, with a short tail in the wild breed, but of varying length in the domesticated; have no incisor teeth in the upper jaw, but in their place a hard elastic cushion along the margin of the gum, on which the animal nips and breaks the herbage on which it feeds; in the lower jaw there are eight incisor teeth and six molars on each side of both jaws, making in all 32 teeth. The fleece consists of two coats, one to keep the animal warm, the other to carry off the water without wetting the skin. The first is of wool, the weight and fineness of which depend on the quality of the pasture and the care bestowed on the flock; the other of hair, that pierces the wool and overlaps it, and is in excess in exact proportion to the badness of the keep and inattention with which the animal is treated.
    680. THE GREAT OBJECT OF THE GRAZIER is to procure an animal that will yield the greatest pecuniary return in the shortest time; or, in other words, soonest convert grass and turnips into good mutton and fine fleece. All sheep will not do this alike; some, like men, are so restless and irritable, that no system of feeding, however good, will develop their frames or make them fat. The system adopted by the breeder to obtain a valuable animal for the butcher, is to enlarge the capacity and functions of the digestive organs, and reduce those of the head and chest, or the mental and respiratory organs. In the first place, the mind should be tranquillized, and those spaces that can never produce animal fibre curtailed, and greater room afforded, as in the abdomen, for those that can. And as nothing militates against the fattening process so much as restlessness, the chief wish of the grazier is to find a dull, indolent sheep, one who, instead of frisking himself, leaping his wattles, or even condescending to notice the butting gambols of his silly companions, silently fills his paunch with pasture, and then seeking a shady nook, indolently and luxuriously chows his cud with closed eyes and blissful satisfaction, only rising when his delicious repast is ended, to proceed silently and without emotion to repeat the pleasing process of laying in more provender, and then returning to his dreamy siesta to renew the delightful task of rumination. Such animals are said to have a lymphatic temperament, and are of so kindly a nature, that on good pasturage they may be said to grow daily. The Leicestershire breed is the best example of this lymphatic and contented animal, and the active Orkney, who is half goat in his habits, of the restless and unprofitable. The rich pasture of our midland counties would take years in making the wiry Orkney fat and profitable, while one day's fatigue in climbing rocks after a coarse and scanty herbage would probably cause the actual death of the pampered and short-winded Leicester.
    681. THE MORE REMOVED FROM THE NATURE of the animal is the food on which it lives, the more difficult is the process of assimilation, and the more complex the chain of digestive organs; for it must be evident to all, that the same apparatus that converts flesh into flesh, is hardly calculated to transmute grass into flesh. As the process of digestion in carnivorous animals is extremely simple, these organs are found to be remarkably short, seldom exceeding the length of the animal's body; while, where digestion is more difficult, from the unassimilating nature of the aliment, as in the ruminant order, the alimentary canal, as is the case with the sheep, is twenty-seven times the length of the body. The digestive organ in all ruminant animals consists of four stomachs, or, rather, a capacious pouch, divided by doorways and valves into four compartments, called, in their order of position, the Paunch, the Reticulum, the Omasum, and the Abomasum. When the sheep nibbles the grass, and is ignorantly supposed to be eating, he is, in fact, only preparing the raw material of his meal, in reality only mowing the pasture, which, as he collects, is swallowed instantly, passing into the first receptacle, the paunch, where it is surrounded by a quantity of warm saliva, in which the herbage undergoes a process of maceration or softening, till the animal having filled this compartment, the contents pass through a valve into the second or smaller bag,--the reticulum, where, having again filled the paunch with a reserve, the sheep lies down and commences that singular process of chewing the cud, or, in other words, masticating the food he has collected. By the operation of a certain set of muscles, a small quantity of this softened food from the reticulum, or second bag, is passed into the mouth, which it now becomes the pleasure of the sheep to grind under his molar teeth into a soft smooth pulp, the operation being further assisted by a flow of saliva, answering the double purpose of increasing the flavour of the aliment and promoting the solvency of the mass. Having completely comminuted and blended this mouthful, it is swallowed a second time; but instead of returning to the paunch or reticulum, it passes through another valve into a side cavity,--the omasum, where, after a maceration in more saliva for some hours, it glides by the same contrivance into the fourth pouch,--the abomasum, an apartment in all respects analogous to the ordinary stomach of animals, and where the process of digestion, begun and carried on in the previous three, is here consummated, and the nutrient principle, by means of the bile, eliminated from the digested aliment. Such is the process of digestion in sheep and oxen.
    682. NO OTHER ANIMAL, even of the same order, possesses in so remarkable a degree the power of converting pasture into flesh as the Leicestershire sheep; the South Down and Cheviot, the two next breeds in quality, are, in consequence of the greater vivacity of the animal's nature, not equal to it in that respect, though in both the brain and chest are kept subservient to the greater capacity of the organs of digestion. Besides the advantage of increased bulk and finer fleeces, the breeder seeks to obtain an augmented deposit of tissue in those parts of the carcase most esteemed as food, or, what are called in the trade "prime joints;" and so far has this been effected, that the comparative weight of the hind quarters over the fore has become a test of quality in the breed, the butchers in some markets charging twopence a pound more for that portion of the sheep. Indeed, so superior are the hind quarters of mutton now regarded, that very many of the West-end butchers never deal in any other part of the sheep.
    683. THE DIFFERENCE IN THE QUALITY OF THE FLESH in various breeds is a well-established fact, not alone in flavour, but also in tenderness; and that the nature of the pasture on which the sheep is fed influences the flavour of the meat, is equally certain, and shown in the estimation in which those flocks are held which have grazed on the thymy heath of Bamstead in Sussex. It is also a well-established truth, that the larger the frame of the animal, the coarser is the meat, and that small bones are both guarantees for the fineness of the breed and the delicacy of the flesh. The sex too has much to do in determining the quality of the meat; in the males, the lean is closer in fibre, deeper in colour, harder in texture, less juicy, and freer from fat, than in the female, and is consequently tougher and more difficult of digestion; but probably age, and the character of the pasturage on which they are reared, has, more than any other cause, an influence on the quality and tenderness of the meat.
    684. THE NUMEROUS VARIETIES of sheep inhabiting the different regions of the earth have been reduced by Cuvier to three, or at most four, species: the Ovis Amman, or the Argali, the presumed parent stock of all the rest; the Ovis Tragelaphus, the bearded sheep of Africa; the Ovis Musmon, the Musmon of Southern Europe; and the Ovis Montana, the Mouflon of America; though it is believed by many naturalists that this last is so nearly identical with the Indian Argali as to be undeserving a separate place. It is still a controversy to which of these three we are indebted for the many breeds of modern domestication; the Argali, however, by general belief, has been considered as the most probable progenitor of the present varieties.
    685. THE EFFECTS PRODUCED BY CHANGE OF CLIMATE, accident, and other causes, must have been great to accomplish so complete a physical alteration as the primitive Argali must have undergone before the Musmon, or Mouflon of Corsica, the immediate progenitor of all our European breeds, assumed his present appearance. The Argali is about a fifth larger in size than the ordinary English sheep, and being a native of a tropical clime, his fleece is of hair instead of wool, and of a warm reddish brown, approaching to yellow; a thick mane of darker hair, about seven inches long, commences from two long tufts at the angle of the jaws, and, running under the throat and neck, descends down the chest, dividing, at the fore fork, into two parts, one running down the front of each leg, as low as the shank. The horns, unlike the character of the order generally, have a quadrangular base, and, sweeping inwards, terminate in a sharp point. The tail, about seven inches long, ends in a tuft of stiff hairs. From this remarkable muffler-looking beard, the French have given the species the name of Mouflon manchettes. From the primitive stock eleven varieties have been reared in this country, of the domesticated sheep, each supposed by their advocates to possess some one or more special qualities. These eleven, embracing the Shetland or Orkney; the Dun-woolled; Black-faced, or heath-bred; the Moorland, or Devonshire; the Cheviot; the Horned, of Norfolk the Ryeland; South-Down; the Merino; the Old Leicester, and the Teeswater, or New Leicester, have of late years been epitomized; and, for all useful and practical purposes, reduced to the following four orders:--
    687. SOUTH-DOWNS.--It appears, as far as our investigation can trace the fact, that from the very earliest epoch of agricultural history in England, the breezy range of light chalky hills running through the south-west and south of Sussex and Hampshire, and known as the South-Downs, has been famous for a superior race of sheep; and we find the Romans early established mills and a cloth-factory at Winchester, where they may be said to terminate, which rose to such estimation, from the fineness of the wool and texture of the cloth, that the produce was kept as only worthy to clothe emperors. From this, it may be inferred that sheep have always been indigenous to this hilly tract. Though boasting so remote a reputation, it is comparatively within late years that the improvement and present state of perfection of this breed has been effected, the South-Down new ranking, for symmetry of shape, constitution, and early maturity, with any stock in the kingdom. The South-Down has no horns, is covered with a fine wool from two to three inches long, has a small head, and legs and face of a grey colour. It is, however, considered deficient in depth and breadth of chest. A marked peculiarity of this breed is that its hind quarters stand higher than the fore, the quarters weighing from fifteen to eighteen pounds.
    688. THE LEICESTER.--It was not till the year 1755 that Mr. Robert Bakewell directed his attention to the improvement of his stock of sheep, and ultimately effected that change in the character of his flock which has brought the breed to hold so prominent a place. The Leicester is regarded as the largest example of the improved breeds, very productive, and yielding a good fleece. He has a small head, covered with short white hairs, a clean muzzle, an open countenance, full eye, long thin ear, tapering neck, well-arched ribs, and straight back. The meat is indifferent, its flavour not being so good as that of the South-Down, and there is a very large proportion of fat. Average weight of carcase from 90 to 100 lbs.
    689. BLACK-FACED, on HEATH-BRED SHEEP.--This is the most hardy of all our native breeds, and originally came from Ettrick Forest. The face and legs are black, or sometimes mottled, the horns spiral, and on the top of the forehead it has a small round tuft of lighter-coloured wool than on the face; has the muzzle and lips of the same light hue, and what shepherds call a mealy mouth; the eye is full of vivacity and fire, and well open; the body long, round, and firm, and the limbs robust. The wool is thin, coarse, and light. Weight of the quarter, from 10 to 16 lbs.
    690. THE CHEVIOT.--From the earliest traditions, these hills in the North, like the chalk-ridges in the South, have possessed a race of large-carcased sheep, producing a valuable fleece. To these physical advantages, they added a sound constitution, remarkable vigour, and capability to endure great privation. Both sexes are destitute of horns, face white, legs long and clean, carries the head erect, has the throat and neck well covered, the cars long and open, and the face animated. The Cheviot is a small-boned sheep, and well covered with wool to the hough; the only defect in this breed, is in a want of depth in the chest. Weight of the quarter, from 12 to 18 lbs.
    691. THOUGH THE ROMNEY MARSHES, that wide tract of morass and lowland moor extending from the Weald (or ancient forest) of Kent into Sussex, has rather been regarded as a general feeding-ground for any kind of sheep to be pastured on, it has yet, from the earliest date, been famous for a breed of animals almost peculiar to the locality, and especially for size, length, thickness, and quantity of wool, and what is called thickness of stocking; and on this account for ages held pre-eminence over every other breed in the kingdom. So satisfied were the Kentish men with the superiority of their sheep, that they long resisted any crossing in the breed. At length, however, this was effected, and from the Old Romney and New Leicester a stock was produced that proved, in an eminent degree, the advantage of the cross; and though the breed was actually smaller than the original, it was found that the new stock did not consume so much food, the stocking was increased, they were ready for the market a year sooner; that the fat formed more on the exterior of the carcase, where it was of most advantage to the grazier, rather than as formerly in the interior, where it went to the butcher as offal; and though the wool was shorter and lighter, it was of a better colour, finer, and possessed of superior felting properties.
    692. THE ROMNEY MARSH BREED is a large animal, deep, close, and compact, with white face and legs, and yields a heavy fleece of a good staple quality. The general structure is, however, considered defective, the chest being narrow and the extremities coarse; nevertheless its tendency to fatten, and its early maturity, are universally admitted. The Romney Marsh, therefore, though not ranking as a first class in respect of perfection and symmetry of breed, is a highly useful, profitable, and generally advantageous variety of the English domestic sheep.
    693. DIFFERENT NAMES HAVE BEEN GIVEN to sheep by their breeders, according to their age and sex. The male is called a ram, or tup; after weaning, he is said to be a hog, or hogget, or a lamb-hog, tup-hog, or teg; later he is a wether, or wether-hog; after the first shearing, a shearing, or dinmont; and after each succeeding shearing, a two, three, or four-shear ram, tup, or wether, according to circumstances. The female is called a ewe, or gimmer-lamb, till weaned, when she becomes, according to the shepherd's nomenclature, a gimmer-ewe, hog, or teg; after shearing, a gimmer or shearing-ewe, or theave; and in future a two, three, or four-shear ewe, or theave.
    694. THE MODE OF SLAUGHTERING SHEEP is perhaps as humane and expeditious a process as could be adopted to attain the objects sought: the animal being laid on its side in a sort of concave stool, the butcher, while pressing the body with his knee, transfixes the throat near the angle of the jaw, passing his knife between the windpipe and bones of the neck; thus dividing the jugulars, carotids, and large vessels, the death being very rapid from such a hemorrhage.
    695. ALMOST EVERY LARGE CITY has a particular manner of cutting up, or, as it is called, dressing the carcase. In London this process is very simple, and as our butchers have found that much skewering back, doubling one part over another, or scoring the inner cuticle or fell, tends to spoil the meat and shorten the time it would otherwise keep, they avoid all such treatment entirely. The carcase when flayed (which operation is performed while yet warm), the sheep when hung up and the head removed, presents the profile shown in our cut; the small numerals indicating the parts or joints into which one half of the animal is cut. After separating the hind from the fore quarters, with eleven ribs to the latter, the quarters are usually subdivided in the manner shown in the sketch, in which the several joins are defined by the intervening lines and figures. Hind quarter: No. 1, the leg; 2, the loin--the two, when cut in one piece, being called the saddle. Fore quarter: No. 3, the shoulder; 4 and 5 the neck; No. 5 being called, for distinction, the scrag, which is generally afterwards separated from 4, the lower and better joint; No. 6, the breast. The haunch of mutton, so often served at public dinners and special entertainments, comprises all the leg and so much of the loin, short of the ribs or lap, as is indicated on the upper part of the carcase by a dotted line.
    696. THE GENTLE AND TIMID DISPOSITION of the sheep, and its defenceless condition, must very early have attached it to man for motives less selfish than either its fleece or its flesh; for it has been proved beyond a doubt that, obtuse as we generally regard it, it is susceptible of a high degree of domesticity, obedience, and affection. In many parts of Europe, where the flocks are guided by the shepherd's voice alone, it is no unusual thing for a sheep to quit the herd when called by its name, and follow the keeper like a dog. In the mountains of Scotland, when a flock is invaded by a savage dog, the rams have been known to form the herd into a circle, and placing themselves on the outside line, keep the enemy at bay, or charging on him in a troop, have despatched him with their horns.
    697. THE VALUE OF THE SHEEP seems to have been early understood by Adam in his fallen state; his skin not only affording him protection for his body, but a covering for his tent; and accordingly, we find Abel intrusted with this portion of his father's stock; for the Bible tells us that "Abel was a keeper of sheep." What other animals were domesticated at that time we can only conjecture, or at what exact period the flesh of the sheep was first eaten for food by man, is equally, if not uncertain, open to controversy. For though some authorities maintain the contrary, it is but natural to suppose that when Abel brought firstlings of his flock, "and the fat thereof," as a sacrifice, the less dainty portions, not being oblations, were hardly likely to have been flung away as refuse. Indeed, without supposing Adam and his descendants to have eaten animal food, we cannot reconcile the fact of Jubal Cain, Cain's son, and his family, living in tents, as they are reported to have done, knowing that both their own garments and the coverings of the tents, were made from the hides and skins of the animals they bred; for the number of sheep and oxen slain for oblations only, would not have supplied sufficient material for two such necessary purposes. The opposite opinion is, that animal food was not eaten till after the Flood, when the Lord renewed his covenant with Noah. From Scriptural authority we learn many interesting facts as regards the sheep: the first, that mutton fat was considered the most delicious portion of any meat, and the tail and adjacent part the most exquisite morsel in the whole body; consequently, such were regarded as especially fit for the offer of sacrifice. From this fact we may reasonably infer that the animal still so often met with in Palestine and Syria, and known as the Fat-tailed sheep, was in use in the days of the patriarchs, though probably not then of the size and weight it now attains to; a supposition that gains greater strength, when it is remembered that the ram Abraham found in the bush, when he went to offer up Isaac, was a horned animal, being entangled in the brake by his curved horns; so far proving that it belonged to the tribe of the Capridae, the fat-tailed sheep appertaining to the same family.


    698. THOUGH THE LAMBING SEASON IN THIS COUNTRY usually commences in March, under the artificial system, so much pursued now to please the appetite of luxury, lambs can be procured at all seasons. When, however, the sheep lambs in mid-winter, or the inclemency of the weather would endanger the lives of mother and young, if exposed to its influence, it is customary to rear the lambs within-doors, and under the shelter of stables or barns, where, foddered on soft hay, and part fed on cow's milk, the little creatures thrive rapidly: to such it is customary to give the name of House Lamb, to distinguish it from that reared in the open air, or grass-fed. The ewe goes five months with her young, about 152 days, or close on 22 weeks. The weaning season commences on poor lands, about the end of the third month, but on rich pasture not till the close of the fourth--sometimes longer.
    699. FROM THE LARGE PROPORTION OF MOISTURE OR FLUIDS contained in the tissues of all young animals, the flesh of lamb and veal is much more prone, in close, damp weather, to become tainted and spoil than the flesh of the more mature, drier, and closer-textured beef and mutton. Among epicures, the most delicious sorts of lamb are those of the South-Down breed, known by their black feet; and of these, those which have been exclusively suckled on the milk of the parent ewe, are considered the finest. Next to these in estimation are those fed on the milk of several dams, and last of all, though the fattest, the grass-fed lamb; this, however, implies an age much greater than either of the others.
    700. LAMB, in the early part of the season, however reared, is in London, and indeed generally, sold in quarters, divided with eleven ribs to the forequarter; but, as the season advances, these are subdivided into two, and the hind-quarter in the same manner; the first consisting of the shoulder, and the neck and breast; the latter, of the leg and the loin,--as shown in the cut illustrative of mutton. As lamb, from the juicy nature of its flesh, is especially liable to spoil in unfavourable weather, it should be frequently wiped, so as to remove any moisture that may form on it.
    701. IN THE PURCHASING OF LAMB FOR THE TABLE, there are certain signs by which the experienced judgment is able to form an accurate opinion whether the animal has been lately slaughtered, and whether the joints possess that condition of fibre indicative of good and wholesome meat. The first of these doubts may be solved satisfactorily by the bright and dilated appearance of the eye; the quality of the fore-quarter can always be guaranteed by the blue or healthy ruddiness of the jugular, or vein of the neck; while the rigidity of the knuckle, and the firm, compact feel of the kidney, will answer in an equally positive manner for the integrity of the hind-quarter.
    702. MODE OF CUTTING UP A SIDE OF LAMB IN LONDON.--1, 1. Ribs; 2. Breast; 3. Shoulder; 4. Loin; 5. Leg; 1,2,3. Fore Quarter.