Too many sheep have ruined the paddock

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The population of our paddock Earth has almost tripled since 1950 (Image by Dan Jensen)

The world population in 1950 was about 2.6 billion; today, in one human lifetime, it is about 7.6 billion.

IT WAS A FORMER rugby oval with a high fence. Short grass, some weeds, bare patches in places, but plenty of room for the 25-plus sheep that grazed it. There were ewes and rams in more or less equal numbers and they settled in groups at different areas demarcated by the many lines leftover from the days when men scrabbled and raked the ground to do whatever rugby players do.

The rams made all the rules, sharing the ewes among themselves, though there were regular fights and some of the rams would force themselves on the ewes and some ewes were open to approach by any of the males.

The groups in the different areas gradually developed their own modes of communication and their own customs and most of them believed that they were under the control of some big farmer they called “DT” who gave them certain rights and whom they believed responsible for the rain that refreshed the paddock.

Every year, there was shearing which annoyed the sheep a little, but there was nothing they could do about it — as far as they were concerned, it was just the way things were done. Like the way that the ewes produced lambs which grew up to become sheep, sharing the bounty of the paddock. Mind you, some areas did become a bit overused and there was less grass to go around.

The life expectancy of a sheep is about ten years, so there were deaths, too. Mostly older members of the community, but sometimes the result of some row involving one or more of the rams who were inclined to show off their bulk and use it to get whatever they wanted. As time went on, the areas occupied by particular groups became formalised, so that sheep from one area would not be welcome in another. In cases like that, the bigger the horns of the rams in a particular area, the better they were able to keep out newcomers.

So life went on in the paddock, the numbers gradually increasing to 40 and then 50, with no sign of slowing down. It was a bit crowded in places, but there was still room for everyone. Although the rams believed that, because of their strength and big horns, they were the bosses, some ewes did not accept this and there could be occasional high bleating from one side and aggressive “baa” sounds from the other.

Different groups believed that they owed allegiance to different DTs and this could lead to conflict. Most of the disputes were silly. In one part of the paddock for example, near the ten-metre line, the sheep were divided on whether their DT was left-footed or right-footed, but most sheep felt that the DT thing was just a story to make lambs behave.

Some of the brighter sheep began to tell the others that they were all equal in the eyes of their DT and they all had the same rights, irrespective of whatever colour fleece they produced. One ram, a clever Suffolk named Win, told them that progress depended only on chance, but most did not understand what he was talking about, although they called him “Doctor” and named a small stone near a corner flag after him.

Some of the sheep worked out ways of living a few months longer and, what with the lambs being produced in earnest pursuit of ovine rights, the population quickly went from 50 to 60 and from 60 to 70. The paddock was being over-grazed and there were outbreaks of trouble when sheep from some areas tried to take over nearby spots or moved across one of the old lines without being invited.

But still, the population continued to grow, despite air and soil becoming more and more polluted. Even when the paddock population passed 75, it never occurred to them that they should bring the numbers down. Any suggestion of spaying or neutering would been treated with scorn.

Dr Win, whom we met earlier, had said that when this happened, something bad would ensue and, sure enough, it did. A tiny insect caused havoc in one corner of the paddock. It quickly spread to other parts, killing some of the older sheep and forcing all of them to keep away from each other. No one knew what to do, although there was one huge ram in the fertile middle of the paddock who told his companions that they should imitate him and eat their own droppings.

The paddock still operates but some sheep think that its days are numbered and that they should look for somewhere else. If only they could get over the fence.

Frank O'Shea is a retired teacher of quadratic equations.

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