Sheep and Man

M.L. Ryder

Duckworth 1983
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Reissued after a quarter of a century, M.L. Ryder's Sheep and Man remains the only comprehensive treatment of its topic: it contains material not found elsewhere, but also brings together information that is otherwise segregated in regional or specialised studies. Sheep have been and continue to be key components of economies, ecologies, and societies — and no other in depth global perspective on this exists.

Part one begins with some biology. Ryder doesn't delve into anatomy or veterinary science here, but focuses on key features relevant to the interaction of sheep with humans, and on their domestication and spread. He continues with a survey of sheep in the "ancient civilisations" and in early medieval Europe and Islam.

Taking up over half the volume, part two is a geographically organised survey of sheep-rearing from medieval times to the present. To give an idea of its reach, it includes three pages on Iceland, three and a half on Mongolia, and five on New Zealand — and fifteen pages on Scotland and nearly thirty on Australia.

"The sheep is the most important livestock species in Iran; yet numbers decreased from 40 to 20 million in the twenty years before the Second World War, largely as a result of ill-advised attempts to settle nomadic tribes. Although the sheep population halved again during the war, it had reached 35 million in 1975, 95 per cent of which are of fat-tailed type. The use of dung as fuel has been detrimental to the cultivation of crops.
Sheep and goats provide all the wool for the carpet industry, 65 per cent of the meat, and 40 per cent of the milk products, milk being the most important product to the sheep owner. The animals grow slowly, and great prestige is attached to large numbers, so they are killed at a relatively great age."

Part three covers the mechanics of the association between sheep and man, with chapters on sheep husbandry, sheep products, and the distribution and likely future of sheep breeds.

"The term sheepfold covers a variety of enclosures for different purposes. The most ancient type was an enclosure in which the flock was kept at night. In sedentary flocks the fold could be a permanent stone structure, and on archaeological sites of all periods throughout the world unexplained stone enclosures are frequently described as animal pens particularly when circular or oval. Evidence for such a use is rarely conclusive and further confusion is caused by the fact that human hut circles may have been used for livestock at a later date. Such enclosures are also used as lambing pens."

There are plenty of connections to broader history and economics and society, and much of the detail is fascinating. But the mass of detail can also be overwhelming.

"The nomadic Toposa tribe of south-east Sudan keep a fat-rumped sheep that is similar to the Somali, except for the lack of a black head, and the presence of horns in the ram. The hair coat is white with black or brown spots, and some animals are roan owing to a mixture of brown fibres. The tail varies in size and shape from fat-rumped to fat-tailed type, indeed McLeroy (1961) regarded the Toposa as a modified fat-tail in which the tail is S-shaped."

Ryder is reliant on secondary sources for much of his information, and his inclusiveness here sometimes leads him astray. Occasional assertions are just confused — "the Mongolians were the originators of shamanism" — while others are relayed without any kind of evaluation — "Krist (1939) refers to felt blankets, and confirms that scorpions never walk on felt".

Sheep and Man obviously doesn't cover the events of the last quarter-century. Apart from that, the biggest change has come with far more extensive use of molecular sequence analysis. Most of this, however, has involved elaboration of the relationships between local sheep breeds, and the overall picture Ryder presents has not been radically updated.

Sheep and Man is extensively illustrated with halftones. These cover artifacts, art, landscapes and architecture as well as different breeds of sheep, and draw on reproductions of older illustrations as well as photographs. Some maps and diagrams are included.

An essential reference for anyone studying the history of sheep, Sheep and Man is also worthwhile browsing for general readers with a broad interest in human history.

April 2008

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%T Sheep and Man
%A Ryder, M.L.
%I Duckworth
%D 1983
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0715636472
%P 846pp