Harriet Ritvo


On her book Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History

Cover Interview of July 20, 2011

A close-up

The essays collected in Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras share a focus on animals but within that general topic, they vary greatly.  So a reader most interested in contemporary issues would be drawn first to different selections than would a reader most interested in the history of science.

If I had to choose a single essay that distills the central themes of the book—and that also represents my interest in environmental history—it would be the penultimate essay, “Counting Sheep in the English Lake District.”

Beginning with the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, which resulted in a widely publicized assault by the British army on the Herdwick sheep who graze unrestrained on the uplands of northwest England, this piece considers how that breed came to symbolize its apparently wild homeland, in preference, for example, to the red squirrel or the otter.  This symbolism is multiply complex.  Not only are the sheep demonstrably non-indigenous and incontestably domesticated, but their rugged environment also is less wild, or at least more modified by human society and economy, than it appears.  Indeed, it has been largely modified by the sheep, who, for the last millennium, have prevented the re-growth of tree cover by their incessant nibbling.  So like the sheep, the landscape itself is only wild by assertion and convention; the Herdwicks may after all be its most appropriate representatives.