Frankenstein’s Sheep: The Story of Stockbreeding – Part 1

Poor sheep.

While Mary Shelley began writing her book Frankenstein near the beginning of the eighteenth century, the farmers of England had been at work for around half a century to create creatures of their own.

Sheep were once a small, beautifully coated animal of fairly reasonable intelligence. My dissertation is on the changes to sheep that happened during the 17th and 18th centuries, how they changed from the animal just described to the meat-making machines they are today.

‘A large animal is so beautiful to look at, and conveys such an idea of plenty to the imagination’

– Agricola Sylvia 1778, 171

Initially they had quite a nice living for a domesticated animal, to be fed and bred mostly for their coat. Obviously we still ate them (like we do with most animals we find), but they were good looking animals that would live a few years before being killed. We English were able to build an industry literally from the clothes on their backs and in exchange we fed and protected them.

This was all to change.

Though not all breeds of sheep, some are said to have doubled in size in less than 50 years. For example, a particularly noteworthy sheep of the time is that of the New Leicester, a huge sheep bred and raised from the techniques of a brilliant farmer named Robert Bakewell.

The veterinary surgeon William Youatt offered this interesting, but disturbingly graphic description of the animal:

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Below is an image of the ideal sheep that Mr. Bakewell attempted to create:

dishley sheep

The poor thing is a rectangle on sticks!

It’s frankly amazing what was achieved. Some of the sheep recorded from the period weigh over 250lbs, compared to the data I have from 50-100 years prior this is well over double their original size. These poor animals were bred for maximum meat production, they lost their beautiful coats, they became short legged, brittle, docile animals who were the victims of many different breeding experiments.

My dissertation is on these changes and I hope to post any developments on the topic soon.