Ewe talkEvery sheep sounds different. To the untrained ear the baahing of a flock of sheep sounds all alike; it is only when you see a flock of well spread out yows, with the lambs all over the field, that you realise the hidden powers of the ovine vocal equipment. The minute a - usually imagined - emergency arises the flock has to sort itself out. Every yow has one or two lambs who could be anywhere on the field and can be relied upon to act stupid. In an emergency the yows will only flee with determination when they have their offspring in close proximity - hence the youngsters have to be found quickly. To achieve this end the yow goes: "Baaaah" in a very authoritative and repetitive manner. She can see all these little white dots all over the field, but one lamb looks much like another from a distance and anyway - sheep don't seem to be able to see very well. Hence:
"Baaaaaah", "Baaaaaah" "Baaaaaaaaaaaah".
All the other yows in the field instantly start calling for their own lambs thereby increasing the noise level a hundredfold. The lambs of course answer the call of their elders - so another two hundred voices are added to the cacophony.
There is a further problem. The lamb knows that its mother looks big - bigger than all the other lambs at any rate - but all the adults in the field are big woolly shapes which look more or less alike. The only way to find out for certain whether it is his mummy or not is to dive in for a suck - and if you get butted it's not her! Hence the power of ovine oratory. The lambs have a rough idea what mother sounds like and amongst the dozens of 'baahs' reaching its ears it will sooner or later detect the one characteristic vibration that proclaims: Here is your mother - if you find me there is some milk!
It always works.
I've seen flocks of a hundred or more yows and twice that many lambs sort themselves out into family groups within less than three minutes of intense baahing and yaahing as soon as they spotted some danger. There is of course always that one stupid lamb - the equivalent of our village idiot - who first runs in the wrong direction and then gallops from yow to yow in a forlorn attempt to establish its legitimacy - but even this dim creature will sooner or later find its way home.
The human ear only notices a sudden rush of ferocious baahing, but the sheep know different.
Mind you, some yows really do have a very distinct and unmistakable call. I remember one yow that seemed to have a stutter and it took her several attempt to get up to full speed. The resultant coughing and spluttering sounded like: 'Yuk, yuuuk, yuuukie baaaaah'. A very strange sound indeed and even I would have found her inside a thousand horn flock within minutes!
I fondly remember the yow we called 'The soprano'. She had a high pitched 'baaeeeeh' not unlike Kiri Te Kanawa on a very bad day. What her arias lacked in length was made up by volume and total conviction. You could hear that animal yodel for miles and it would always take a second or two to realize that you were listening to a sheep and not some crazed human being overcome by the mountain air and the sounds of music.
There was a ewe we called - in honour of Dr. Frankenstein - 'The creature'. This yow must have had something wrong with her throat because every time she felt like talking - which was often - she produced a blood-curdling scream - half suicide note, half murderous choke - which would send shivers down the spine of even the most courageous hill farmer. As the animal also had a tendency to hide behind bushes, one could never be sure whether one was the witness of a terrible crime or enjoying an ovine performance of a Hammer horror movie.
I shall never forget the day when The Soprano and The
Creature decided to talk to each other across the hill. For about
twenty minutes the mountain echoed with the most amazing sounds, made
louder by the fact that all the other sheep were as astonished as I was
and kept very quiet. Describing it properly is impossible:
I can only say that ewe never herd anything like it!