Sheep have been closely associated with humans for at least 10,000 years, but despite their ubiquity and association with agro-pastoral cultural landscapes, they are poorly represented in both poetry and in critical readings of pastoral texts. This book addresses that omission by applying concepts from the still emerging field of animal studies to an ecologically focused reading of poetry referencing sheep. The distinction between wild and domesticated species is called into question, with particular attention to Tim Ingold’s ideas about how hunters and pastoralists differ in the relations they have with animals. Pastoral literature is compared with what pastoralism means in agriculture and how it can produce landscapes with a high nature value. Poetry from the upland sheep-farming areas of western Britain is read from the viewpoint of the animal turn. The sheep-breeding practices of Dorset and Devon are explored through the poetry of Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad. Sheep and sheep keeping have been heavily involved in emigration of people, sheep and agricultural practice to the settler colonies, so readings of a small selection of poems from the USA and New Zealand are included to open the important topic of postcolonial reading of sheep poetry. The final chapter opens the question of whether sheep and poets have a future as the crisis deepens. The book makes a contribution to the literature of animal studies and ends with the question of whether the ethical case for a vegan lifestyle and low emissions means that the whole species is destined for extinction.
This chapter is concerned with contemporary wildlife art in Britain covering the period from the formation of the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) in 1964 to the present time. Over that time a considerable body of work has been produced by SWLA artists and exhibited in the Society's annual exhibitions. The chapter considers the relevance of this creative work in ecocritical discourse, both in collaboration with literary and other creative genres and considered in its own right. It explores the way that wildlife artists navigate the twin pulls of science and art in the context of the task of ecocritics to read cultural works with and against discourses from ecology and environmental science. Ecocritics are increasingly interested in the potential for biosemiotics to illuminate ecocritical discourse. The chapter concludes that wildlife art is a rich body of work that would merit further investigation by ecocritics.
Visitors to the countryside are increasingly faced with a variety of panels, interpretation centres and other interventions that convey selected narratives and ways of seeing our natural heritage. This chapter explores the scope for these cultural objects to be included in ecocritical enquiry. The ubiquity and undemanding nature of many displays makes for an accessible source of information about basic ecology as filtered through the viewpoint of site managers for national and country parks, nature reserves and other protected sites. Interpretation is a broad practice that embodies, creative writing and art, constructing ideas of place, explaining the natural environment and promoting a corporate identity. While projects like that on the Tweed Rivers will be immediately accessible to ecocritics, the humble but ubiquitous interpretation panel and the increasing use of technology may be more problematic.
The introduction describes the rationale for a critical study of sheep in contemporary poetry as a means to redress the relative lack of poems ‘about the beasts themselves’, when compared with both literary and critical output on pastoralism. This lack of writing about sheep is mirrored in the experience of agricultural historians where text, literally written on sheep in ancient parchments, was of less interest to a historian than the wool fibres on the parchment that he could see under the microscope. The chapter makes the case for revisiting the ecological basis for ecocriticism by considering the distinction between the population ecology of a single species and community ecology of an assemblage of interdependent species. How do these separate approaches to ecology map onto the difference between poems about sheep and those in the pastoral mode? Have ecocritics, in their haste to explain the etymology of the word ‘ecology’ as about ‘home’ or ‘place’, made poems about a single species, which is domesticated and not wild, more difficult to consider critically? Does the animal turn in the humanities raise issues for the critical study of poems about sheep?
The first chapter introduces the key texts associated with the animal turn in the environmental humanities with particular emphasis on Peter Singer (1975), John Berger (1980) and Donna Haraway (2008). The 10,000-year history of domestication is explored through Juliet Clutton-Brock (1995, 2012) and Terry O’Connor (2013). The animal turn in the humanities depends in part on insights gained from the development of ethology from Darwin through the work of the 1973 Nobel laureates Tinbergen and Lorenz, the sociobiology of Wilson and its more recent transition to evolutionary psychology (Griffiths 2011: 393–414). Ted Hughes’s essays on writing about animals are used to test the idea that the animal turn can enrich our critical understanding of poems about animals.
Most sheep are domesticated, but much discourse about these creatures is based on the distinction between wild and domestic. The second chapter explores the main differences between wild and domestic, in terms of how humans construct their relationship across the species boundary. The St Kilda archipelago is the most remote part of the British Isles. Hirta was the only island to be inhabited until 1930, but in that year this community left for good. In 1932, 107 sheep were relocated from Soay to Hirta and left to become wild. The population ecology of this wild population is of great interest to ecologists and has been intensively researched, first from 1959 to 1967 and since 1985 through the Soay Sheep Project. The sheep on Hirta have the potential to inform discussion by ecocritics of issues such as the difference between wild and domestic, the ethics of watching populations starve and crash without intervention and the overall impact on biodiversity of this strategy of knowing all, but not intervening. The chapter considers the prose writing of Kathleen Jamie and the poetry of Donald S. Murray and New Zealand poet Cilla McQueen, whose ancestors left Hirta in 1851.
For many ecocritics any consideration of the pastoral has to be referred back to classical texts. The third chapter follows this line of enquiry, but with a new reading in the light of the animal turn, that explores the type of relationships these ancient shepherds had with their sheep. Pastoral literature has been a fertile, but also contentious, field for ecocritical analysis. Agriculturalists’ understanding of pastoral is equally problematic. The aim of this chapter is to find a place for sheep in pastoral literature and also to refresh ecocriticism by going back to source in terms of what pastoralism means for ecologists, agriculturalists and land managers. Pastoralism as agricultural practice is now more or less synonymous with naturalistic or extensive grazing and transhumance. The changing pattern of pastoralism over time is traced from the nomadic travels of ancient shepherds with their flocks, to transhumance between winter and summer grazing, to the role of sheep in mixed (livestock and arable) farming during the agricultural improvements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a brief discussion of how new readings can complicate our understanding of poems from the pastoral canon.
The context for Chapter 4 is the award in July 2017 to the English Lake District, Cumbria of UNESCO World Heritage Status as a cultural landscape. The basis of this award is both for the role played by traditional farming and the way that our ideas about landscape have been influenced by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Ruskin. Herdwick sheep, which have a long history in the Lake District, were championed by Beatrix Potter on her portfolio of hill farms that she bequeathed to the National Trust. James Rebanks, who is both a Wordsworth scholar and Herdwick shepherd, continues this tradition. Cumbria, which includes the Lake District, is home to three distinctive hill breeds: Herdwick, Swaledale and Rough Fell. The idea of a cultural landscape is proving to be contentious, and this chapter offers the opportunity to explore how the pastoral mode can be reinterpreted through the animal turn. There is a further opportunity to consider how creative writing is being deployed to conserve the place for hill farming in rural culture. Poets have played an important role in reflecting the lived experience of shepherds. Contemporary poets discussed include Meg Peacocke, Josephine Dickinson and Harriet Fraser.
Chapter 5 covers the Welsh mountains from Snowdon to the Brecon Beacons. The agro-pastoral society of this region is central to the concept of Welsh identity and language. The poets discussed in this chapter write in English, but this dual heritage is always present. The Welsh poet Harri Webb chose the title The Green Desert for his 1969 collection of poems. The idea that the Cambrian Mountains are seen as some sort of desert has been cited by environmentalists as an example of the damage done to the landscape by sheep. This chapter argues for a more nuanced reading of Webb’s designation, linked as it is to the concept of ‘terra incognita’. It is argued that a postcolonial reading would be more appropriate. It will take note of readings of Webb’s poetry by Morris (1993), Jarvis (2008) and Bohata (2004), but with particular reference to how sheep farming is now under pressure. Welsh Mountain sheep and closely related mountain breeds are the mainstay of the Welsh-speaking hill farmers in Snowdonia and the northern Cambrian Mountains. Authors include Ffion Jones (2014) and poets Owen Sheers (2000), Christopher Meredith (2011), Gillian Clarke (1997) and Christine Evans (2006).
In Chapter 6 poetry from Scotland is considered in the context of the movement of sheep from the border regions into the Highlands at the time of the Clearances. Although it happened long ago, this traumatic event still colours narratives of sheep in contemporary Scotland. The Northumberland and Scottish Borders and the Cheviot Hills played an important role in the development of sheep breeds. It was here that the Blackface and Cheviot sheep were developed to meet the requirements of the terrain and from where the breeds spread north during the improvements inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment. The arrival of these breeds in Scotland, driven by market forces as well as ideas about improvement, was sudden and violent. In the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, first performed in 1973, the new breeds of sheep are seen as signifiers of aggressive colonialism that displaced the subsistence-farming crofters so that their lands could be converted to sheep walk. Poets considered in this chapter are Jim Carruth, who writes from first-hand experience as a farmer poet, and Hugh McMillan, whose sympathetic engagement with sheep is both humorous and insightful.