Once upon a time there was a small hill town not far from here called Shipton. In fact, there were lots of towns called Shipton, or Skipton – some of them are still there – and the name meant – and still means – ‘sheep town’.
In this particular Shipton there were a few people and a lot of sheep. The people looked after the sheep, fed them, took them to places where there was fresh grass to eat, and rescued them when they got stuck in bogs or tumbled over cliffs. In return, the sheep surrendered their fleecy coats to their shepherds once a year, and the shepherds were able to spin the fleece into lovely soft wool which they knitted into warm clothes that they could wear, sell, and swap for other things with people from other towns and villages. The system worked pretty well for many years. What happened was this; in the Spring the shepherds would herd the sheep into pens and shear off their coats, and the sheep would feel wonderfully light and free and scamper off to eat grass and gossip. Their coats would then begin to grow back, which did feel a bit scratchy and uncomfortable, but by the time winter rolled around they would be fully woolly once again and ready to face the cold. And the following Spring they would get sheared again, and so on.
One year, however, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as before. Just after the big Spring shearing, a sheep called Baaarbara was frolicking in the woods near Shipton enjoying the sunshine when she met an angry goat who was bashing her head on a tree for no particular reason. The goat laughed at Baaarbara and said, ‘you’ve had a close shave! Where’s all your wool gone?’
‘I’ve just been sheared’, said Baaarbaba cheerfully. ‘My wool is on its way to market in York so that people can make lovely jumpers out of it.’
‘Lovely jumpers!’ scoffed the goat. ‘What they’re making out of your wool, my dear, is lots of lovely money! Why are you helping the shepherds to get rich? I’ll bet they don’t share the profits with the likes of you!’
Well, it may not surprise you to learn that, being a sheep, Baaarbara was quite easily led. She soon became convinced that the goat was right and set off to find her flock and urge them not to grow any more wool for the shepherds to shear off!
‘Sisters’, bleated Baaarbara, ‘We’re having the wool pulled over our eyes! This removal of our coats is ‘shear’ madness! Those shepherds are knit-wits! We won’t let them fleece us any more! I’m not going to regrow my fleece this year, and there will be none for them to steal away and sell – that’ll teach them!!’
And, like sheep – they all followed her lead. That year they did not regrow their fleeces. The shepherds couldn’t understand why their flocks stayed bald all through the year. They tried massaging the sheep [which the sheep really enjoyed], reading to them [they particularly liked the story of Little Bo Peep], and giving them extra lovely things to eat [yum!], but nothing made any difference – the sheep stayed bald. The shepherds scratched their heads in bewilderment and the sheep bleated smugly, thinking they had somehow beaten the system.
But then the winter arrived, and with it harsh, biting winds that whipped across the grasslands and chilled those naked sheep to the bone. In vain they tried to grow some wool to keep themselves warm, but it was too late – the growing season was over.
‘Baaarbara!’ they clamoured. ‘You silly sheep! You’ve made us stay coatless and now we’re cold!’ Needless to say, Baaarbara did feel a little bit sheepish.
Just then, a young shepherdess named Fleecity came to check on her sheep – one of whom was Baaarbara – and overheard their conversation.
‘Ladies’, she said, ‘I have an idea which might solve our problem.’ And she went off to the town’s wool store and brought out all of the fleeces that had been stored there from previous shearings, waiting to be spun into wool for jumpers. She tied a fleece securely onto each sheep. They were warm again, and skipped delightedly around the fields bleating with delight. When Fleecity left to go home they all followed her, bleating out their thanks – which is why flocks of sheep today will still follow a person who comes amongst them.
The old ram, Mutton Jeff, who despite being hard of hearing was relatively wise [for a sheep] declared that from that day on, sheep would always grow another fleecy coat after being sheared – and they still do till this day, despite anything that’s said to them by silly goats!
If you’d like to celebrate all things woolly with the Very Young Friends of Rowntree Park, meet us at the pavilion on Tuesday 7th February at 12:30! Bring your lunch! For under fives and their parents/carers.