Sheep grazing the pastures, 2024. Photography by Daniele Frazier.
Ewes with raddle, 2024. Photography by Daniele Frazier.
Marked ewe (detail), 2024. Photography by Daniele Frazier.
Marked ewe (detail), 2024. Photography by Daniele Frazier.

Counting Sheep

by Daniele Frazier

As the sheep at a neighboring farm grazed the pasture last December, what I saw looked fabulously decorative—a prismatic, punk-esque flock. I was both charmed and bemused by the colorful markings on their otherwise white fleece: it was obvious but cryptic evidence of human intervention. Some of the animals had large swaths of green on their chest, while others had blue stripes on their backs, red dots on their shoulders, orange smears on their behinds, and all had tags in their ears. It seemed to be some form of notation where color correlated to pieces of information—a stylish code—and it elicited a desire to understand its meaning and purpose.

And so I spoke to the shepherd.

The flock, she told me, is composed of ewes of all different ages. Some have never bred, while others have been mothers for many years. This multigenerational mixture generates strata of multidimensional information, including time itself, which is encoded in markings that correspond to a sheep’s future and past: their heritage, as also their destiny. During breeding season, ewes are separated into four color-coded groups and marked on the backs of their necks to indicate which rams are dedicated to which ewes.

At this farm, the shepherd went on, the yellow group is composed of ewes who are first-timers or those who historically need human intervention when giving birth. They often have smaller frames and should be bred with other petite rams who have small heads and will not produce offspring too large to pass these ewes’ birth canals. The purple group is ewes who consistently birth a single lamb. In this case, they will be bred with Texels (a breed of sheep) for genetic diversification and will exclude first-time mothers due to Texel males’ large heads. The orange and red groups are both robust, “A+” ewes. They not only have a record of being excellent mothers but also typically birth twins, which is ideal and efficient from a flock-management perspective because ewes have two teats. The best and biggest rams are introduced to this group for breeding, which farmers call “tupping.”

To prepare rams for tupping season, they are raddled. “Raddle,” in shepherd’s parlance, is a term that was used as early as the 14th century and refers to a pigmented chalk mixed with vegetable oil to make a brightly colored viscous paste. Each ram is raddled on the chest between the front legs and down towards the belly according to their corresponding ewe grouping so that when the ram mounts a female, an obvious mark is left on her behind. The smear on the ewe connotes the corresponding ram who serviced her, while the saturation of the mark could indicate the length, strength, or recency of the encounter.

After a lamb is born, it receives ear tags: a white tag with its mother’s assigned number on one ear, and—if it becomes an ewe—an orange tag with its own number on the opposite ear. Ewes get their mother’s number tagged on the right ear because, as the shepherd told me, “girls are always right.” Rams are tagged on the left only and become wethers once castrated. Ear tags include an “S” for single; “T1” or “T2” for twins; and roman numeral I, II, or III (for triplets) follows the lamb’s number. Both ewes and wethers are also sprayed on their side with their mother’s number. The color of the number is significant; orange means it was born a single, purple a twin, and blue indicates triplets. This is a purposeful redundancy with the ear tags because the side markings can be read from far afield for ease of sorting, saving time, and general identification. Or, in my case, for piquing the curiosity of outsiders.

During the entire process, all of this information is collected from observational and physical contact with the animals and recorded in a computer program designed for farms called FlockFiler. Collectively, these systems are a form of human compensation for our inability to see in sheep what they can innately see and sense in each other through smell and sound.

Eventually, the flock is totally covered in various colors and markings, the confetti preamble to spring lambing that I now understand exists only on a need-to-know basis and is idiosyncratic to each shepherd. The color language isn’t universal—each shepherd comes up with their own system, so it’s not as if a shepherd could go to another farm and “read” their sheep’s markings. Creating this system is a succinct demonstration of the organization of knowledge but looks eccentric. If anything, it reminds me of other visual systems that happen to be attractive: musical notation, maps, star charts, heat maps. The markings are a physical manifestation of humans’ intervention in animal reproduction and a living display of quantitative information. These are artificial colors for an act of artificial selection. This is farming. And though the colors codify important information for the shepherd, there is no reason for me or anyone else to understand this system except to satisfy curiosity. The sheep themselves are color-blind.

Livestock production was one of the most significant leaps in human and societal evolution—a cornerstone in the shift from hunting and gathering to settled societies. In this society I am not a farmer, but a beneficiary and consumer, a layman, an artist and a rural flaneur, observing, appreciating, and pontificating from the outside.

And although what I learned was edifying, sadly I cannot revert to my former ignorance as to what it all meant. I knew, of course, that this wasn’t a display of frivolity, but I didn’t know then the intricacies of the system. Now I do, and the magic has been replaced with knowledge. Just as the colors allow the shepherd to account for sheep from a distance, the intellectual distance allowed me to wonder, much as one counts sheep in order to dream.

Daniele Frazier is an artist based in Chatham, New York.