Lessons from Exploding Sheep

For the residents of West Yorkshire – the countryside famously featured in the BBC show Heartbeat – their 15 minutes of fame occurred mid 2004. To be fair, the West Yorkshire rural scene attracts millions of visitors to the park each year for a range of activities such as cycling, mountain biking and horse-riding on the 2,300km network of tracks that encircle the national park.

However, it wasn’t the sweeping beauty of the area, nor the superb Victorian architecture that made headlines, rather it was a handful of surprising and somewhat random incidence of destruction, by a handful of crafty residents, that shocked residents of the sleepy town.

Witnesses recall it was early 2004 when the first seemingly senseless acts of destruction and vandalism occurred. Villagers simply awoke one morning to discover that their gardens had been destroyed, vegetable patches raided, sporting fields and even local graveyards defiled without warning or apparent reason. Locals and officials were clearly shocked by the events, describing the acts as ‘soul destroying’ as they ‘had never seen anything like it’ in their previously peaceful community. Moreover, within days their plight ended up making headlines globally.

But why is it that this isolated rural community of farmers and moor hikers made headlines internationally simply by bearing witness to the kind of mindless destruction, vandalism and property damage that is endemic in most established communities around the globe?  Surely it must have been a slow news week for this to make headlines…

Surprisingly, a Google search reveals that this really wasn’t the case. At roughly the same time this story broke globally America was involved in heavy fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, two notable celebrities were married, and Martha Stewart was being sentenced to 2 years in federal prison for being fiscally creative. So with all this occurring at the same time and fighting for the mass media’s attention, why is it that West Yorkshire was enjoying the limelight all of a sudden?

As the story broke globally it was revealed that the ‘commando-style’ incursions into the previously impenetrable Yorkshire community were not in fact the result of disgruntled or disaffected teens, nor rival counties cunningly vying for an advantage in an impending tidy-town competition. Rather, they were the actions of a handful of crafty sheep in search of greener pastures (literally). It seems that the previously passive economic staple of the Yorkshire region had suddenly chosen to rebel, taking some rather extraordinary measures to achieve the most basic of Maslow’s hierarchical needs, the search for sustenance.

OK, nothing new here. Sheep grazing on flower gardens, park grasses and bowling greens isn’t exactly rocket science; sheep eat grass, and you’ll tend to find the lushest grass in well tended gardens and parks. But the destruction caused by the rebellious sheep is only a mere side note to the real story; the real story is how the sheep managed to gain access to the Yorkshire gardens in the first place.

Like most of Yorkshire, the basis for the economy is agriculture, with sheep and cattle providing the prime source of farm income. Now as far back as medieval times ‘registered commoners’ had the right to pasture and graze their cattle and flocks in herds on moorland owned by the National Trust, with the only stipulation being that they keep livestock away from the towns gardens and parks. Now up until the previous decade the graziers had fairly successfully managed to keep the livestock at bay by using fences and trenches, but after a few strays had managed to gain access to the local gardens the graziers had begun fixing their fences and installing 8ft hoof-proof metal cattle grids to keep the sheep pastured on the moorlands.

For a time this new strategy worked. Occasionally a curious sheep, usually the Bellwether or dominant ram would amble up to the newly installed cattle grid, attempt to cross it, but as soon as its hooves slipped through the grids they would back away and resume grazing. So the graziers were happy, the local villagers were happy, and even the sheep appeared quite content to stay put. But when the villagers awoke in early 2004 to discover their gardens suddenly destroyed and their vegetable patches raided, they went to the graziers demanding answers.

The graziers, unable to provide an explanation to the distraught villagers promised immediate action and started exploring fence lines in search of holes or gaps. They fund none. They then started looking for cattle grids that may have become clogged with mud or silt, possibly enabling hooven feet to cross them, but they found none. Finally, as a last desperate effort to prevent further damage to the villagers’ lawns and gardens, several graziers decided to stake out the closest cattle grid to the village to keep an eye on their flock. What they discovered early one morning made headlines across the globe.

It turns out that the sheep had come up with a remarkably efficient way of breaching the cattle grids that was also truly ingenious. The graziers watched in silent amazement as the dominant ram casually ambled up to the cattle grid, laid down on their sides and then rolled across the grid to the other side. Seeing this, the remaining members of the flock simply followed suit, and before long the majority of the flock was ambling towards the village in search of greener pastures.

The graziers, whilst initially stunned by this revelation, acted quickly and returned the flock to the moorlands before any additional damage was done. They then simply erected fences at the cattle grids as a second measure of security for the villager’s gardens and things soon returned to normal. Sheep returned to peacefully grazing the moors and villagers returned to lovingly tending their gardens, and the global media promptly forgot about Yorkshire and returned its attention to the war in Iraq, Brangelina and Martha’s new government funded PJ’s.

But what’s the moral to this story (if we are to suppose that all stories of this kind have a moral)?

  1. Sometimes life presents the flock with challenges
  2. These challenges usually require us to break from flock mentality
  3. It only takes one ‘sheep’ to explode convention and come up with a novel idea
  4. These novel ideas can totally change the game and elicit grand rewards (fame, $$$, grass)
  5. So don’t settle for being a sheep, be an Exploding Sheep (and enjoy the greener grass)