6 Times That Sheep Made History, Part 1

So, I’m aware it’s been a while since I posted. I decided that if I was going to make a comeback, I needed to do so with a bang. And what better way to do that than a blog post all about:


Hell yeah. Six times that our woolly friends have left their mark on history. In particular, British history, although there is one honourable mention at the end of Part 2 – a daredevil sheep from France who inspired this entire post. Don’t skip ahead to the end; I promise it’ll be worth the journey.

As with many of my blog posts, I fully intended to put all of my wonderful flock in one post, but ended up wanting to say way more than the average human attention span would allow. So I have split the blog post into two to make things more manageable. You’re welcome.

But without much further ado, we’re going to put our best hoof forward and start off with probably the world’s most famous sheep. No, not Shaun. Dolly.


Dolly doesn’t need much of an introduction. She’s a bit of a legend to be honest. The first mammal in the world to be cloned from an adult cell. Something which most scientists at the time thought was impossible.

Ironically for a clone who, some might say, has no mother, Dolly had three. One who provided the egg, one the DNA, and the other was her surrogate, and the DNA in question came from the mammary gland or udder of a six year old Finn Dorset sheep.

One thing that you may not have known about Dolly was that she was named after the country singer Dolly Parton. Genuinely.

One of the scientists involved in the experiment, Ian Wilmut, said of the choice of name: “Dolly is derived from a mammary gland cell and we couldn’t think of a more impressive pair of glands than Dolly Parton’s” – ew.

Dolly and Wilmut (Photo: Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh)

She was grown for six days in a lab before being implanted in her surrogate. Not quite the traditional “birds and bees” story, but she was a bit of a miracle. She was the only lamb to reach adulthood out of 277 attempts.

Aw, look at little lamb Dolly (Photo: Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh)

Dolly was born on 5th July 1996, although her existence wasn’t revealed until the following February. In the week following the announcement, The Roslin Institute, who were conducting the research, received 3,000 phone calls from around the world. Dolly was a superstar.

One of the reasons why her cloning was so significant was because Dolly came from an adult cell, a specialised cell (basically cells with a particular function, like a skin or lung cell). It proved that specialised cells could be used to create an exact copy of the animal they came from. Previously, it was believed that this was impossible because scientists thought that specialised cells contained only the information required to do their assigned job.
Dolly wasn’t the first ever cloned animal, not by a long shot, but she’s completely stolen the limelight. She wasn’t even the first cloned sheep. There were a number of other sheep who came before Dolly, but they’d come from embryonic and foetal cells instead of adult cells. I know, who cares, right? There were even frogs being cloned all the way back in the 1950s. Admittedly though, frogs aren’t quite as cute or as cuddly as sheep, so not exactly the ideal poster animal for the advancement of cloning.

Of course, her birth was also massively controversial and a number of ethical and moral dilemmas concerning cloning have been raised in both the pre- and post-Dolly eras.

Dolly and her firstborn, Bonnie (Photo: Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh)

Obviously, Dolly was blissfully unaware of any of this. She continued to live out her days on a farm in Scotland. She gave birth to six lambs with a hunky Welsh Mountain ram called David. Then, sadly, she was put to sleep at six years old because she was suffering from a progressive lung disease. That was not the end of her story, however. Her body was donated to science, she was taxidermied, and is still on display to this day at the National Museum of Scotland. She continues to be one of their most popular exhibits.

Her legacy has been hugely important as well. Interestingly, probably more in regards to stem cell research than cloning.
That’s not to say that cloning research has ground to a halt. No way. Since Dolly, scientists have branched out beyond frogs and sheep. In 2009, the first extinct animal was cloned. In Northern Spain, scientists cloned the Pyrenean ibex, a type of wild mountain goat, which had been declared extinct in 2000. Sadly, it died shortly after birth due to defects in its lungs, but it opened up discussions about reviving other species from extinction, such as mammoths. It’s starting to sound a little bit Jurassic Park-y, isn’t it?.
In 2017, the first primate species was successfully cloned. Two macaque monkeys, Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, who, as far as I’m aware, are still alive and kicking.
And the process itself has become much more efficient. Remember how Dolly was one in 277? By 2016, a Korean company, Sooam Biotech, was producing 500 cloned embryos a day. In fact, they had the process so streamlined that they’d even started offering a service to bereaved dog owners. Losing your beloved canine companion was a thing of the past. For the price of $100,000, you could have your recently deceased dog cloned and essentially brought back from the dead. It’s a Brave New World. Who knows what’s next? So whether you curse or revere her – cheers Dolly.

Dolly in the National Museum of Scotland (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Lance Corporal Derby XXXII

If you’re an employer, looking for a new hire, you’re normally told to avoid sheep. I would argue, we all need to be hiring more sheep, because you’ll find them excelling in all fields (pun 100% intended). Whether it’s science, industry, or, in this case, the army. Lance Corporal Derby XXXII is the highest-ranking sheep in the military (and ranks higher than a large number of humans too).

He even has a Guinness World Record for being the highest ranking sheep in the world. For some context, a lance corporal normally serves as second-in-command of a section (seven to twelve soldiers). Luckily, Lance Corporal Derby is not calling the shots in any military campaigns.

Instead, Lance Corporal Derby XXXII is the mascot of the Mercian Regiment. Even though he spends more time in a field rather than the battlefield, as a member of the military he has an ID card and Army number, his line manager is the Ram Major (you can’t make this stuff up), and he receives an allowance to buy his rations (as of 2019, it was £3.68 a day). He also gets a month of annual leave during the mating season to go back home to Chatsworth Estate.

Private Derby XXX, one of Derby’s predecessors (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Mercian Regiment that he belongs to has existed since 2007 when the Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters and Cheshire regiments merged, but the tradition of a regiment having a sheep mascot goes back much further. 165 years, in fact, to 1858, when the 9th Derbyshire Foot Regiment acquired the first Private Derby during the Indian Rebellion.

Badge of the Mercian Regiment (Photo: National Army Museum)

Thirty-one Derbys later and it has become tradition for the newest mascot to come from the Duke of Devonshire, who choses a Swaledale ram from his flock at Chatsworth Park and presents it as a gift to the Mercian Regiment. Surprisingly, the Duke gives them the most aggressive ram. Seems a bit rude, but it’s become tradition for the Regiment to get the ram as wild as possible, so that they can train the aggression out of him. The newest Derby receives three weeks of training, including getting him used to wearing the ceremonial collar and being surrounded by his crowds of adoring fans.

You may laugh, but Lance Corporal Derby XXXII is somewhat of a celebrity. He has his own Twitter account, he has appeared on Bargain Hunt, Antiques Roadshow, and Sky Sports, and just like any star he goes through hair and makeup before any TV appearance – a hard brush to get all of the loose hairs out, a softer brush for his face, debris is picked out of his wool, and his face is given a final clean with wet wipes.

This kind of treatment may have gone to the heads of many a lesser celebrity, but luckily Lance Corporal Derby XXXII seems to have stayed relatively grounded. You can’t say the same about all of his predecessors however: one of them would kick the jerry-can containing his water on the regular and another even had their rank removed for going to the toilet on the parade square. What a diva.

London Bridge and Sheep

Funnily enough, London Bridge has not just one, but two associations with sheep.
This makes slightly more sense when you consider just how important sheep and wool were to the English economy, alongside the fact that London Bridge was the only bridge crossing the Thames in London until 1750. Aside from ferries, it was basically the only way to cross the river into London, making it an absolutely essential thoroughfare if you wanted to get your sheep to market.

And not just sheep. All sorts of livestock were crossing London Bridge. It’s a part of historic London which I would have loved to have seen for myself. A bridge piled high with shops and houses, road and foot traffic fighting to squeeze both ways down the narrow road, cows and sheep meandering this way and that – it would have been absolute, delicious chaos.

Old London Bridge, Claude de Jongh, 1632 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As a result, there were a number of accidents on London Bridge. For example, in 1481, one of the public latrines which dangled precariously off the side of the bridge collapsed into the river (much to the shock of the unsuspecting Londoners who were relieving themselves inside). They weren’t the only ones to end up in the Thames either. Plenty of animals did too.

And once upon a time, it was a perk of the Constable at the nearby Tower of London that he could lay claim to any horses, oxen, pigs or sheep that fell off London Bridge.
I’m just imagining some guy waiting at the foot of London Bridge all day with a big net. I know this didn’t happen, but it’s a funny picture.
In addition (and unrelated to sheep), the Constable was also apparently allowed any swan that swam under London Bridge. Although why anything would risk swimming under London Bridge when you have to avoid falling toilets and sheep is beyond me.

The other ancient tradition related to London Bridge and sheep is thankfully not about them falling off the bridge, but getting safely across it. And it is still something that happens to this day. You may have come across it yourself before. Utterly by chance. One day, you were in central London, you wanted to cross London Bridge, and you found your path blocked by a flock of sheep. It’s happened to the best of us.

(The 2021 sheep drive on Southwark Bridge)

I’m not making this up. Every year, one of the City of London livery companies, the Worshipful Company of Woolmen, hosts a sheep drive. This is meant to represent one of the historic rights of the Freemen of the City of London. Now, I realise it sounds like I just made up a load of nonsense, but stay with me. Being a Freeman is now largely symbolic, but historically was a huge deal. As a Freeman, literally a “free man”, you were no longer the property of a lord and you enjoyed perks like being able to earn money and own land. See. Pretty significant. It is believed this honour was first bestowed upon a Londoner all the way back in 1237. As a Freeman, you were also allowed to carry out a trade in the City of London as a member of one of the City’s livery companies. Each livery company represented a trade and it was their job to regulate their respective industries: Goldsmiths, Fishmongers, Bakers, Plumbers, Woolmen etc.. Even the Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards. There are still 110 livery companies in the City of London. Nowadays, they have less to do with their original trades and are more often involved in philanthropic work. And they love a good tradition.

It has become a bit of an urban legend that, as a Freeman, you are allowed to drive sheep over London Bridge. That’s not technically the case, so apologies if you were already Googling how to become a Freeman and where best to source sheep at short notice.

There’s no smoke without fire, however, and it seems like this assumption may have stemmed from an actual right which Freeman once enjoyed. Historically, Freeman of the City of London were exempt from paying the toll to cross London Bridge, which meant that farmers who were also Freeman could bring their sheep to market more cheaply than others.

Obviously, this privilege to cross the bridge toll-free included Freeman transporting all sorts of livestock and products, but by tradition this right is now embodied by sheep (probably because they were once the backbone of the English economy).

It’s not clear when the last sheep were driven over London Bridge, but it’s likely to have ended with the advent of motorised vehicles, which provided a much more convenient way to transport livestock (and you could stop worrying about them falling off bridges). So while I mentioned that this was an ancient tradition, really, it has only been happening consistently again since 2013 and it’s not even always been on London Bridge! When I went to watch it in 2021, it was on Southwark Bridge. Presumably because it’s a little bit quieter and closing the bridge resulted in fewer perturbed commuters.

I have to say, I’m not a massive fan of this particular tradition. When I went to watch it, the sheep seemed pretty stressed by the whole situation and the effort of bringing them to London and closing the bridge, just to honour a “tradition” which has been happening for less than ten years and doesn’t actually represent a historic right of the Freeman, all seemed a bit excessive. But, like I said, the City loves its traditions and people continue to flock to it. If sheep chasing isn’t your thing, however, the madness doesn’t end there: you can go to the City and watch a papier-mâché wild boar being paraded to the Lord Mayor, a pancake race, and children hitting the street with sticks. How they have time to get anything sensible done is beyond me.

Tune in for Part 2 to learn all about a medical marvel, a woolly lion, and even a flying sheep!

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Lance Corporal Derby XXXII

London Bridge and Sheep

Published by Amber | Rambling London Tours

Hello, my name is Amber. A few things about me. I am a born and bred Londoner so I absolutely adore my home city, but I love travel too, which means I'm always excited about exploring new places as well as taking other travellers (like you) around the places I love. I have been working in tourism on and off since 2014, both in the UK and briefly in Australia, and in 2020 I qualified as a professional Blue Badge Tour Guide for London and the South East of England. I love history, I have a History degree, and I think tourism is the perfect way to make sure I always keep learning, meeting new people, while also giving me a career where the world is my office! Hopefully I will have the pleasure of meeting you too.

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