The Christmas carol does not take a view about shepherds who were “watching their flocks by night”, but watching your sheep has to be a good thing. Maybe on one particular Saturday night certain English shepherds weren’t doing enough watching, or maybe it really could have been the angel of the Lord coming down (slightly early) to bring “glad tidings of great joy”. It happened on the evening of November 3rd 1888.
For on that dark night, at around about 8pm, something unknown spooked tens of thousand sheep in hundreds of individual flocks separated great distances from one another across 200 square miles of Oxfordshire and its surrounding counties. The sheep simultaneously took it upon themselves to panic, break out of their pens and fields and run — mostly in the same direction. The next morning they were found, still panting with fear and hidden among the hedges for miles around.
A couple of weeks after this strangeness, two partners in a seed company at the epicentre felt it their duty to write to The Times, describing the geographic extent of the night of the startled sheep.
Seeing their letter published in The Times on November 20th, George James Symons FRS, an internationally eminent meteorologist, a pioneer of comprehensive rainfall recording and past president of the Royal Meteorological Society wrote in answer. Like the consummate scientist that he was, Symons was accepting nothing and was considering all hypotheses that could fit the evidence.
He had heard that nearly all the sheep ran in an easterly or southeasterly direction, but anecdotal evidence was not enough for him and so he ventured the opinion that “further evidence on that head is necessary”. He discounted lightning, though he noted that the seedsmen from Reading reported a few flashes. He discounted vandalism or sheep worrying dogs, for the area was just too vast. He added intriguingly that almost exactly a year earlier, on November 20th 1887 the sheep had not been disturbed by what he identified as a “detonating meteor burst” over “very much the same district”.
In fact common sense demands that darkness, thunder and lightning, a marauding rabid dog, or indeed something as out of the ordinary as a meteor could not have fazed so many un-adjacent flocks of sheep over such a huge area. If any of those phenomena was an upset to sheep then mass panics like this would happen many times a season. So it is fair to infer that something unique and strange was going on that night. But what?
The latter day UFO brigade have latched onto this and fair play to them, for this was behaviour of sheep so far out of the ordinary that something was happening that defied explanation.
And so it would remain a unique and inexplicable happening — until five years later, that is. Scroll forward to December 4th 1893. The very self same thing happened across the very same lands of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Berkshire.
Step forward Oxfordshire’s own David Attenborough; ornithologist, naturalist, agriculturalist, writer and lifelong lover of the countryside, Oliver Vernon Aplin (1858-1940). Aplin too began by writing to the local paper requesting witness evidence. By the following March Aplin was ready to publish his conclusions in the Royal Society of Agriculture’s journal. He begins as a scientist would: “Sheep are notoriously timid and nervous animals, and are not only highly susceptible of coming changes in the weather (as evidenced by their nervous activity and tendency, when folded, to jump the hurdles), but are apt to exhibit fright at purely imaginary dangers, or at all events at causes of supposed danger, which, whatever portentous shapes they may assume to the eyes of the sheep, are not apparent to human beings.”
He continues by quoting copious eyewitness testimony from across the region about the panic and concludes “We have been able to fix the time at which the panic took place with some approach to accuracy. It happened early in the night, at sometime probably between 7.30 and 9 pm, varying a little in different places, and usually taking place a little after 8 o’clock.”
Ever the scientist, he examines whether sheep in valleys were less affected than those on hills and even questions whether differing soil types made a difference.
But then, based on the words of the witnesses, he seems to stray into the now familiar territory of the outlandish ‘strange lights’ theories of the Roswell kind.
“Mr. Neild writes : ‘ Another man at Finstock is said to have seen a wonderful meteor at the same hour. ‘ Mr. Calvert thought it might have been caused by a sudden electrical or phosphorescent light playing fitfully on the ground — a sort of will-o’-the-wisp. Mr. J. Clowes, of Dunthrop, Chipping Norton, thought it was an electric disturbance, ‘ as we had strong lightning during the night afterwards. ‘ There were also other reports of this phosphorescent light, but I have met with no thoroughly satisfactory evidence of it, and it may be pointed out that if it was the general cause of the panic all over the great affected district, it would certainly have been actually seen by many of the numerous people who must have been out of doors during the early part of the night the panic took place. The same may be said of the supposed meteor; and upon this point it is instructive to observe that the extraordinary and brilliant meteor which attracted so much attention on the night of January 26, 1894, and, as noticed in the papers, even when the sky was covered with dense clouds, illuminated the whole landscape with a light so bright that objects became nearly as visible as in ordinary daylight, was not accompanied or followed by any panic among the sheep.”
Aplin who was himself out in the night in question draws this conclusion: “I may now say that I have little doubt that the cause of the panic in the sheep was not any kind of light, but simply thick darkness.”
He cites witnesses including local policemen and a coachman. All reported to him the presence of a thick black cloud that enveloped the region making the moonless night preternaturally dark for a time. However, his witnesses state that the cloud preceded the sheep stampede by at least half an hour and by 8pm the sky lightened considerably.
Pretty inconclusive as a conclusion, but at least Aplin had been trying to apply scientific principles, though he never questioned why this rolling black cloud phenomenon was never mentioned by others at the time nor was it recorded in any weather observations. So he fell at the last hurdle and a mystery remained a mystery.
When it happened the next time it was also in the month of December, this time on the other side of the country, in the year 1920. Whatever it was that frightened the sheep that time had passed in a 15 mile long straight line, just east of Cambridge. The relatively new phenomenon of the airplane was ruled out. The chief constable of Cambridgeshire stepped in and hinted reassurance, saying that he was convinced (on very little evidence, it must be said), it was a meteor shower that frightened the flocks. Yes there are identified meteor showers in December, one known as the chi orionids as well as the better known geminids, but these are annual events. If they are to blame, then the questions to ask is why does a meteor not startle every sheep, all the time, everywhere?
One man wrote into the Daily Mail newspaper with his own explanation based on experiences of his own. His sheep had been startled by the noise of a large flock of geese flying low.
The mystery of disturbed sheep which once in a while get into a panic over something remains unsolved.