Yesterday I needed to be in Boulder for technological reasons, and . . . well, there's this magnetic force around Shuttles, Spindles & Skeins that affects my car whenever it's within forty-five minutes of the shop. Coincidentally, I had a list of things I was looking for that might be found at Shuttles. I located those, and more. I brought home more than I intended, but not as much as I discovered that I wanted.
Here's one of the books I picked up: Beautiful Sheep: Portraits of Champion Breeds, by Kathryn Dun with photographs by Paul Farnham. I had planned just to take a look, thinking I didn't really need to buy a copy—in other words, know it's out there, know what it is, invest my pennies in something else.
It's not perfect, but I couldn't resist. Yes, I'm a sucker for good sheep pictures. The front flap copy says the publication "aims to give a taste of the diversity and variety of sheep around the world" and that the photography "captures the beauty, elegance, and indeed quirkiness" of forty breeds.
I love the "diversity and variety" of sheep. I think that sheep are beautiful, elegant, and quirky. The photos here are exquisite.
Beautiful Sheep was developed in the United Kingdom, and the types of sheep included reflect its origins. Kathryn Dun is a veterinarian who helps her family show their North Country Cheviots and Scotch Mules, and she provides introductory information on the history of sheep, a bit about breeds, and then an introduction to livestock shows featuring sheep, as well as the data clips that accompany the photographs. Paul Farnham, a fashion photographer, made the sheep portraits in a studio.
My immediate temptation, of course, is to compare Beautiful Sheep to a long-time favorite of mine, Rare Breeds: Endangered Farm Animals in Photographs, with an introduction by Roger A. Caras, photos by Robert Dowling, and text by Lawrence Alderson (Little, Brown; 1994).
The obvious differences: Beautiful Sheep is sheep-only, and Rare Breeds covers many species, endangered varieties only—sheep are a small (but significant) part of a bigger topic.
The less obvious differences:
Roger Caras and Lawrence Alderson have spent their lives working on and studying a wide variety of animal-related issues. Caras was president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and wrote on the order of seventy books about animals. Alderson is Founder Chairman of Rare Breeds International and was Executive Director of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Caras and Alderson are on my short list of people who know their stuff. They're hard acts to follow.
Fortunately, Kathryn Dun only needs to set the stage with a few short essays and provide the info opposite the photos: brief descriptions and statistics. I overlook a few of her statements, like "The Welsh Half-bred is, as its name suggests, a half-bred breed of sheep!" (p. 32). Well, if it's a "half-bred breed" then it's not a breed at all. If this were my book, I'd need to work on the phrasing, but it's not a breed. Later in the copy for the same type of sheep it says "No rams: the breed is a crossbreed that is not purebred." (Other comments indicate that the narrative stance doesn't stick tightly to the definition of breed; these aren't just quips.) The matter of breeds is a topic that I will likely go on at length about at another time. In short, for now: enjoy the big picture of Beautiful Sheep, but don't quote the details without checking elsewhere . . . like with material written by Alderson, the folks at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and similar sources.
What does she understand well? The practical aspects of breeds in specific environments in the U.K. and the way crossbreeding is used to fit animals to landscapes and economic factors. This isn't a subject that's addressed directly in the book, but it informs her perspective and therefore the brief comments.
What is, by and large, missing from Beautiful Sheep?
Much attention to wool. Which is, of course, one of my passions.
That photo above compares a spread in Beautiful Sheep (below) with a photo from Rare Breeds (righthand page), both showing Cotswolds. The Beautiful Sheep one shows the sheep's conformation (body style) better and the Rare Breeds one balances body style with a good start on fleece character. (On the lefthand page in Rare Breeds: Lincolns. On its cover, in the first photo up above: Leicester Longwool, or English Leicester.)
In Beautiful Sheep, the perspective is largely meat- and milk-production based, with wool as a secondary crop in most cases. Descriptions of wool include rough fleece weights, and general comments like: "Although classified as a longwool breed, the fleece is only moderately long, but fine in texture." That's with reference to the Galway. A spinner would be left wondering. How long is moderately long? How fine is fine? Does "texture" mean micron count, or a subjective sense of how it feels?
I do like that Beautiful Sheep indicates whether the photo was taken of, say, an adult ram or a shearling ewe. That's very useful. The sheep are most often shown with their wool trimmed for the livestock show, which seriously compromises the fiber for spinners. The Wensleydale didn't lose its wool before its picture was taken.
The Clun Forest sure did:
"Short, close-textured wool of consistently high quality." Also, fleece weight 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 lb (2.5 – 3 kg). That's IT for wool information.
For more, you need to go to, say, Nola Fournier and Jane Fournier's In Sheep's Clothing: A Handspinner's Guide to Wool (now available in paperback!). It doesn't have the lovely color photos, but it's packed with knowledge—not just about sheep breeds, but about wool and spinning in general.
And it gives us valuable and useful details about the Clun Forest's fleece:
So why could I not leave Beautiful Sheep sitting on the book display, as I'd intended to?
Because it does capture the elegance and idiosyncracies of the sheep that it presents, some of which are (gasp!) new to me (see addendum below). The full animals are shown, as large as they can be (drawback: no sense of scale: the Oxford, p. 76, and the Soay, p. 74, look about the same size). It supplements and complements volumes that are already in my library (including Rare Breeds and In Sheep's Clothing) and gives me more pleasure than it cost me money ($19.95 US; ISBN 978-0-312-38512-5).
Addendum: A few nuts and bolts
Neither book arranges its sheep in any logical order that I can perceive. Those who are curious about sheep breeds and types may be able to tell from a simple list of what's included whether they are interested in seeking out one or the other of these titles.
Sheep photographs in Rare Breeds:
Balwen (Balwen Welsh Mountain)
Graue Gehornte Heidschnucke
Sheep photographs in Beautiful Sheep:
Balwen Welsh Mountain
Berrichon du Cher
Black Welsh Mountain
British Bleu du Maine
British Rouge (Rouge de l’Ouest)
Welsh Mountain Badger Face