Not one of these ruminants is a goat
Continuing my series on basic animal husbandry I move to a serious technical subject – telling goats and sheep apart. Often, just after lambing, we hear people passing by our field and pointing out the animals to their children. A common mistake that they make, is that they mix up our sheep and goats, more specifically they don’t see the difference between the lambs of our primitive sheep and our goats. People have stereotyped views of lambs and sheep (woolly, cuddly, round and white – very occasionally black) and goats (horned, smelly, and angular) and this throws them, as our primitive sheep are multicoloured (browns, blacks and whites) and have quite spectacular horns. (The sheep assure me that they are not, however, smelly). This has been a long-standing area of confusion and we have records going back over many years on how to tell sheep and goats apart. Perhaps the most famous of these was in the Olivate Discourses when, in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Mathew, they discussed the separation of the Sheep and the goats in the Judgment of Nations. In this section the animals are used to make the point that while they may look and sound alike (four legs, furry, making bleating noises) some are good while others are bad. I always thought that this parable was rather unfair on the goats. Mathew sees the goats as the sinister, evil half of the pair, who will not be saved nor be let sit on the right-hand side of God. Though wise on so many areas I think he made a mistake here – I think Mathew mixed up his goats and sheep. How can we avoid this error?
Some of the confusion is because of obvious similarities. They are both ruminants that chew the cud, they are both cloven hooved, they are similar sized, have the same number of legs, and both cook well in a slow oven. But they are not interchangeable. Goats have 60 chromosomes as opposed to the 54 of sheep. Goats have hair rather than wool. Goats have beards while sheep have manes, the goats’ upper lip is solid like ours while sheep have a split upper lip, and goats’ tails tend to stick up while sheep and lamb tails tend to dangle down. However, when you are peering over a hedge with a young child on your shoulders the number of chromosomes may not be a helpful method of discriminating goats and sheep. And despite all these other differences I would like to propose a different way to separate them which is not only easier but also more valuable.
The biggest difference by far between these two species is in their character. Although sheep are almost entirely domesticated, and very rarely seen in the wild, they remain fearful of man. Indeed, this is the character of sheep; they are timid and fearful. Anything that isn’t grass, or another sheep, is a worry and source of anxiety. Left with enough grazing sheep will happily get by eating and being sheep; disrupt this with anything other than a bucket of food and they will panic and run. In addition to being timid they also have little interest in what is going on. If you work in the field, putting up fences or pulling thistles, the sheep in the fled will be as far away from you as they can manage. If you pull down a tasty branch, they might venture close enough to eat some leaves but as soon as they are gone so are the sheep. The commonest view you will have of a sheep is of its rear end, with a bouncing dangling tail, as it runs away from you.
Goats being helpful
Goats, on the other hand, are curious and brave animals. They see the world as their buffet, everything might be food and thus is worth exploring. While sheep graze, plodding along eating the grass, goats browse – eating upwards, climbing and reaching for anything that might be edible. No matter where they are, they will find something of interest and try and eat it. Anything new in their environment intrigues them, whether it is a new gate or a new chainsaw it is worth exploring, it could just be edible or have edible bits to it – it is worth checking, just in case. This curiosity relates to people, if you are in the field working the goats will be beside you (you might be making something edible) sticking their noses into your business. They will taste everything your hair, your watch, your vest, your trousers. The only time your goats will be running away from you is when you want them to go in a different direction; they are stubborn and will always think that a different way to the way you suggest might be superior.
So, if the animal you are trying to determine is a small dot in the distance running away from you with a look of terror on its face then it is a sheep. If the animal is right beside you with its nose in your pocket testing if your wallet is edible then it is a goat. How did the Bible get it so wrong? Surely the brave, curious and intelligent animals are those we wish to emulate not the rather dim, timid creatures with no ability to smile.