They’re white and woolly and their babies gambol prettily in fields in springtime. And if that’s all you know or care about sheep, you’re not only wrong (sheep come in lots of colours) but you’re probably pretty typical.
In this respect, Philip Walling is not typical at all. He is the author of a fascinating new book called Counting Sheep whose cover is reminiscent of those inter-war railway posters advertising bracing holidays at the seaside.
This is clearly deliberate. The sub-title of Philip’s book is A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain and that, he explains in his introduction, is possible to do through the prism of sheep.`
He writes of “a parallel world at work in Britain” which most of us hardly ever notice and know little or nothing about.
This is nothing sinister. It is “the world of sheep husbandry” and, he asserts, it was once “the foundation of all the wealth of England”.
Philip, who lives at Belsay in Northumberland, is a former barrister, but he is also a former sheep farmer. In print and in person he is a powerful advocate of the latter of these previous lines of business (less so, the former).
The aims of his book, he tells us in print, are to clear up our sheep-related ignorance and/or indifference and to make us proud of something we do really well in this country – “producing food and wool from our own soil”.
It is “a real activity”, he states appreciatively, and not a metaphor that evaporates as soon as you try to grasp it.
Read a page or two more of Philip’s book and you will start to find your eyes opening to the multiplicity of sheep breeds grazing and bleating not too many stone throws away.
“More than any other piece of land in the world, Britain is quintessential sheep country,” writes Philip.
“Its climate and terrain are ideal for rearing sheep and sheep have been kept in large numbers throughout the British Isles for thousands of years.”
So, understand sheep and you will understand a great deal about our history, about the “waves of migrants” who have landed here over centuries with their domestic animals.
“What I’m really saying,” stresses Philip in person, “is that our whole country has been shaped by grazing animals, mostly sheep. We have 64 native breeds that have grown out of the soil, taking on the characteristics of the place where they have matured and grown.
“We’re the only country in the world to have this range of different sheep breeds within such a narrow compass.”
In the blink of an eye, Philip is whisking me back in time and over fell and dale with tales of sheep converging on Britain from Russia, Scandinavia and the Mediterranean – of Leicesters and Texels and Swaledales and Suffolks and many more besides.
There are southern breeds and northern breeds, all tailored to their environment and serving specific purposes.
But before I go along with this shaggy sheep story, I want to know what propelled Philip on the route to authorship, this being his first book if you discount the as-yet-unpublished novel with a legal setting.
“I was walking along the coast at Dunstanburgh with my daughter and son-in-law and I thought of the sheep pyramid,” he tells me.
“I’d read something in the paper which was about how completely unaware people are of it all. I farmed for 10 years and then I became a barrister which was a very stupid thing to do.”
Invigorated by the sea air, Philip embarked on a task that would result in him travelling the country to pick the brains of farmers and breed experts.
First, though, a word about that sheep pyramid. It is, he writes in his book, “a remarkably sophisticated stratified national meat-producing system” and it is based on something called double-cross breeding.
At the top of the pyramid are pure-bred mountain and hill ewes (millions of them). These form the “genetic reservoir” on which the sheep industry depends.
In the interest of delivering mutton to our tables, these are moved downhill to be crossed with Longwool rams to produce breeding females which, in turn, are crossed with Down breeds.
The result of these dangerous woolly liaisons are the so called ‘butchers’ lambs’ which keep those of a non-vegetarian persuasion fed.
And at this point, it’s worth passing on the Counting Sheep revelation that for centuries sheep were kept largely for their wool, “our greatest cash crop”.
Many of the wool-bearing types of sheep came into lowland Britain with the Romans. The demand for meat, and for candle tallow, came with industrialisation and the growth of towns and cities.
Of himself, Philip says: “I got rubbish A levels and didn’t go to university. I had a bit of a crisis and couldn’t work out what I wanted to do.
“My grandfather left me a little bit of land and I think, because of that impetus, I rather fancied farming. I didn’t know anything about it because my father wasn’t a farmer, although all my friends had been.”
Aged 18 or 19 he went to work for a farmer, helping to tend his Herdwick flock. “I realised I loved it and I thought, this is just magical.
“Then I spent a year at agricultural college, learning how not to farm. I came back and started to farm recklessly on 50 acres of land, which couldn’t provide a living. But I was young and enthusiastic and I wernt on to aquire other pieces of land.
“There are magical moments, I realise now, that are fleeting and that you never recapture although you spend nearly all your life trying. I suppose I’m just a romantic really.”
There is a touch of magic about the way Philip acquired his first proper farm. He tells the anecdote to open his book, explaining that in a howling blizzard during the Second World War, his grandfather received a phone call from Cockermouth asking him to form a search party.
A young soldier called Sale had gone missing after leaving the farm where he had been staying with his aunt to walk the six miles to the station.
The search party found the young soldier huddled in his greatcoat in a snowdrift, exhausted and insensible.
They escorted him to safety and the Sale family held that Philip’s grandfather’s search party had saved his life. They never forgot the good turn and were to repay it with another.
Thirty five years later, when Philip was looking for a proper farm, the Sales offered him the tenancy of their Cumbrian establishment at a nominal rent. Later he was able to buy it at a substantial discount.
Philip farmed happily at Picket How for 10 years until a “gnawing sense of regret” at having not gone to university got the better of him.
On the strength of an interview and an essay he got himself into Lancaster University as a mature student to study law with some medieval history thrown in.
Although he preferred the medieval history, he decided the law promised the more certain income.
It led to a 30-year career in barristers’ chambers in London, then Newcastle and then London again, before finally he decided to call it a day.
With the book, he was free to return to his first love, sheep, revisiting moments of magic without the responsibility of having to farm.
“It’s taken me three years to write and research this and my agent things it’s going to be really successful,” he says. “They’ve done a 5,000-copy first print run.”
He dedicates the book, in part, to the Sale family, always feeling guilty that when he sold their old farm he appeared to have “thrown their kindness back in their faces”.
“I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next,” he says. “I think I’m going to have to pull that novel together.”
In the meantime, Philip’s first published book, I feel, is going to make a lot of people consider sheep – and maybe the history of Britain – in a whole new light, and perhaps for the very first time.
Counting Sheep by Philip Walling is published by Profile Books at £14.99.