Fiber book review: Beautiful Sheep

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)
Castlemilk Moorit
Graue Gehornte Heidschnucke
Greyface Dartmoor
Hill Radnor
Leicester Longwool
Lincoln Longwool
Manx Loghtan
Norfolk Horn
North Ronaldsay
Whitefaced Woodland
Wiltshire Horn

Sheep photographs in Beautiful Sheep:

Balwen Welsh Mountain
Berrichon du Cher
Black Welsh Mountain
Bluefaced Leicester
Blue Texel
Border Leicester
British Bleu du Maine
British Rouge (Rouge de l’Ouest)
British Vendeen
Clun Forest
Dorset Down
Exmoor Horn
Greyface Dartmoor
Hill Radnor
Kerry Hill
Lincoln Longwool
Manx Loghtan
Oxford Down
Rough Fell
Welsh Half-Bred
Welsh Mountain Badger Face
Welsh Mule
Wiltshire Horn


11 thoughts on “Fiber book review: Beautiful Sheep”

  1. I also just finished “Beautiful Sheep”. I too, bought it for the pictures. (I’m just beginning to learn about fiber, having bought a spinning wheel a few weeks ago.) I found that the only sense of scale is in the little sketch of the shepard opposite each photo. The shepard is the same, but the sheep change, so you can sort of see the size difference. For me, the book really opened my eyes to the variety of sheep there are, and makes me want to learn more (I would say “whet my appetite for more”, but I’d sound like I’m hungry for dinner…) I enjoy your blog very much.

  2. When I was a teenager, my family raised sheep. One of the great joys of my life was the annual trip to a big sheep show where I got to see a variety of breeds. This was back in the 60’s, before the Renaissance of hand-spinning, so the emphasis was on meat or dual breeds.
    I love to look at pictures of sheep. I really miss working with them. I’ll have to check and see if any of these books are available on inter-library loan…
    Thanks for the info!

  3. Yeah, like I need another sheep book as well.

    You want an excuse for a road trip north? 🙂

    One of our local shepherds (well, shepherdess, actually) is having an a la carte shearing at her farm’s open house in April.

    While I don’t need another fleece, being able to go over, pick a sheep (Icelandic, Shetland, Cotswold, or Columbia) and watch while she shears is, um, rather tempting.

  4. I love the Parade of Breeds at Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival. EVERY time.

    And . . . excuse for a trip north. Maybe another year. I am surrounded by wool at the moment. FRESHLY shorn wool is completely irresistible. I dare not even consider.

  5. How would you compare this book to British Sheep & Wool, published by the British Wool Marketing Board in 1990? It’s another glossy book with lovely photos but not much information on wool; they sound quite similar to me.

  6. I’m not sure I’m remembering the same British Wool Marketing Board book; I’ve had one of theirs from the library but don’t own it. I’m wondering if the publication I had was older than 1990. Maybe not. Time flies. Beautiful Sheep is snazzier and less systematic than the British Wool Marketing book that I recall and definitely features different breeds.

  7. Beautiful sheep is like pr0n for shepherds. I looked at the pics but was disappointed in the meat/milk focus.
    You are teaching at Sock Summit! Oh I hope I get to go to it.

  8. Oh, if only there was a publisher who saw the strengths and shortcomings of the sheep/wool books and gave us everything in one mighty tome.

  9. Thank you for the review, Deb! I’ve been ogling this book online but hesitating about buying it sight unseen.

    Interestingly enough, I just a moment ago sent an email off to Brown Trout Publishers asking them (very politely) to please put the names of the breeds on their “Sheep” calendar. Then I come here and find you talking about sheep breed books. Ha! 😀

  10. Okay, you need to take me in hand, and introduce me to this marvelous shop in Boulder, so I can find toys too! Between the afghan, the book, the tempting reference to things you needed…..I’m about ready to get lost down there until I find it! Help me save gas and time, please??

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