Smit Marks in Sheep

Smit marks are the way that farmers in Britain know which sheep are theirs. Sheep don’t need smit marks, of course. When they are the length of a field away, ewes know their lambs and lambs know their mothers from their bleats. But if you are a farmer rather than a sheep, then you need a quick and simple way to identify your sheep.

When sheep are fenced in a field, then the only sheep that need quick identification are strays that manage to escape the field. That happens a lot with some breeds, whose only purpose in life is a desire to push themselves through any opening that presents itself.

Years ago I had a sheep that I kept to mow the grass. The farmer practically gave him to me because the sheep was always trying to force his way through the hedge around the farmer’s field. The sheep had pushed so much and so often that he wore the fleece and skin from the front of his head. It grew back as a tight fuzz that never grew more than that.

Generally though, when sheep are fenced in, smit marks are not important. That is, until it comes time for market, when they might mix with many sheep from different owners.

Unfenced Sheep

It’s a different story on open, unfenced ground where flocks can mix freely – such as up on the hills of Northern England. Up there it’s the whole flock that can become mixed in with other flocks.

In former times, knowing which sheep belonged to who was also important when sheep were put on Common land. Common land was land that was owned by the village as a community. The village made communal decisions about planting and grazing, including when sheep were let out to graze. And when that happened, sheep from different flocks mixed freely.

Then the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries fenced off the Commons and passed the ownership from the local community to one farmer. Some called it highway robbery; some called it the march of progress and the changing need to feed an urban population.

But whether for strays or whole flocks, how was a farmer to know which were his sheep? From close up he would know them by their lug marks, which were distinctive cuts to the lug of their ears. But from far away, the farmer or the shepherd needed a different method.

Smit Marks

If you have seen sheep in the lowland fields and on the hills in the UK you may have noticed the paint marks on their fleeces. They are smit marks and farmers have been using them for hundreds of years to identify to whom particular sheep belong.

A daub of paint – perhaps two marks of red or one of black – nearer the haunch or the shoulder. From these a farmer would know which were his sheep and which belonged to his neighbour.

The paint was a mixture of a pigment to give the colour and grease or whale oil to make the mixture stick.

The pigment might be powdered iron ore or graphite or powdered stone. Farmers used pigments rather than natural dyes because they would retain their colour over the year and not be bleached away by the sun.

Of course, once a sheep was sheered the sheep had to be painted with a smit mark again, and that would usually be done as soon as a sheep was sheared.

A Guide To Smit Marks

Smit marks were complex. There were crosses and dots and stripes of colour on the back, the neck, the haunches and on the near side and the far side of the sheep.

And which was the ‘far’ side? Well, if you imagine a sheep standing sideways to you with the head to your right, that is the far side. 

A Herdwick ram with a long fleece and curved horns viewed in profile and text that reads 'Happiness is knowing that there are twenty-tree million sheep in the UK'

With desire comes demand, and in 1817 Joseph Walker published the first manual of smit marks. He published the manual for his home area of Martindale and the surrounding valleys in the Lake District in the north-west of England.

His guide was so popular that over the next 80 years or so other farmers published guides for other parts of the country.

The need for a guide is not surprising bearing in mind the number of sheep. Even today with much reduced numbers there are still more than twenty million sheep in the UK.

This Herdwick ram features in one of our cards, with the ram with its long fleece and curved horns telling you that ‘Happiness is knowing that there are twenty-tree million sheep in the UK’

The Present Day

In the 21st century, sheep are required by law to have digital tags implanted under the skin. Their main use is to identify a sheep when notifiable diseases break out and action needs to be taken quickly.

You could say that the problem of disease outbreaks is made all the worse by the ease of communication around the country. Flocks are transported long distances for mating and to sell at auction. The Lake District is just a few hours away by wagon from the south coast nowadays.

The result is that disease can spread rapidly all over the country. This happened in the terrible foot-and-mouth disease epidemic of 2001 in the UK. 

Foot-and-mouth disease affects pigs, cattle, deer, and other animals, and in the 2001 epidemic around ten million sheep and cattle were slaughtered and their carcasses burnt in an effort to halt the disease.

But even with implanted tags, and tags in the ear to replace ear lugs, farmers today still use traditional smit marks to know at a distance which sheep belong to them and which to their neighbours.

swaledale ewe with ochre-red smit mark on its far side

Chemical Dyes

It’s mostly chemical dyes that are used nowadays, and as you can see from this Swaledale ewe with a large smit mark in a lovely shade of ochre. The mark could easily be iron ore with its reddish colour. Perhaps it is.

Next time you are out in the countryside, you can have the pleasure of thinking that smit marks that trace their history in Britain back hundreds of years.

Checkout Friction

Checkout friction is every obstacle to completing a purchase. Imagine that you are a customer at the checkout. What is going to improve your e-commerce checkout experience and what is going to make it a poor experience?

The longer and more difficult the process is between deciding to buy and being able to complete the purchase, the less chance of you completing the checkout. Rational doubt stalks the checkout, asking whether you really want that thing. With each delay it gets bolder. It’s called checkout friction. It is the demands the website makes of the customer in order for them to complete the purchase.

There are several ways to reduce friction. One is to already have the customer’s details, or rather, to have the checkout know the customer. Apple Pay and Google Pay know who you are when you are logged into your computer or phone. So they can speed you through the checkout. Then all the store owner has to know is what’s needed to implement one-click checkout.

Shopify has an equivalent app, named Shop. As soon as you buy anything from a Shopify store, the Shop app will recognise you in any other Shopify store.

The Fast app tried to do the same, and could be integrated with WooCommerce. But there is a big difference between Shopify and WooCommerce. All Shopify stores are run on Shopify’s servers. Therefore, what is known to one is known to all, because the checkout does not belong to the individual store, it belongs to Shopify.

That’s not the case with WooCommerce stores. which are usually set up on self-hosted sites. That means that all the sites (or a big proportion) would have to use Fast or it would not be ‘known’ to other sites. If a significant proportion do not take it up then it fails, to make checkout any faster, and doesn’t help checkout friction at all..

It would maybe have helped Fast if it was a one-click installation. It certainly wasn’t when I looked at it. As it was, it didn’t take off and the developer closed it down and published a farewell that included this paragraph:

Sometimes trailblazers don’t make it all the way to the mountain top. But even in those situations, they pave a way that all others will follow. Fast has done that with bringing one-click and headless checkout into the mainstream. Buying online has been forever changed by the incredible team at Fast. The dedication, brilliance and spirit of this remarkable team is unparalleled and will forever be the legacy of Fast.

Fast closed its doors because it didn’t achieve critical mass. That’s not to say another app couldn’t accomplish what it didn’t manage to do. Stripe backed Fast, and I wondered at the time why Stripe didn’t use a similar integration themselves. Maybe they cannot because of privacy concerns. Who knows, and maybe it will, but it has to find a place alongside Apple Pay and Google Pay, so maybe the market is already crowded and another solution would be a solution to a non-existent problem.

Final thought, why would you call an application ‘Fast’? Maybe it would have caught on had it had a catchier name. After all, we are not rational beings no matter what we tall ourselves.

Why We Use White Envelopes

white envelopes for flying twigs greeting cards

Before we start talking about white envelopes, let’s consider the cards themselves. The card stock we use for our greeting cards has a writing surface that is easy to write on and is made to resist smudging. That is not a claim that we make lightly. We choose card stocks that feel good in the hand with a nice weight and ‘snap’ to them. And we test the no-smudge quality by writing on them as though we were sending a card. ‘Test and check – and then you know.’

The same goes for the envelopes. We supply our cards with white envelopes that are easy to write on too. We test them as well, writing an address and return address on the envelopes.

In case you are wondering whether we use our own cards when we send cards to friends and family, well we generally don’t. We don’t because we want to try different cards from different businesses. That’s how, coincidentally, we learn which cards and envelopes resist smudging, and which don’t..

When we say our cards and envelopes are easy to write on without smudging, that’s not just marketing fluff. You may have bought a card from some other brand where the writing surface is so shiny that the pen skates across the surface and the ink sits on the surface, doesn’t dry for ages, and smudges as soon as you touch it. The same with envelopes, especially those shiny silvery looking ones. So ours aren’t like that. We take care that our envelopes are made of paper that doesn’t smudge easily.

Why White Envelopes?

And then there’s colour. White is terrific for showing the best contract between the writing and the base colour. If you ever bought a deep red envelope, or a silver one, you know how difficult it is to see the writing clearly with good contrast. It’s a similar problem with brown Kraft ribbed envelopes, which have poor contrast. And the shiny silver ones with a kind of metallic appearance are the worst. The ink just floats on them and it doesn’t dry.

This all matters for the obvious reason of someone being able to read it. But it also matters for the way the card goes through the system at the Royal Mail sorting office. It’s all done by machines. The first sort is to decipher the postcode. Then the system breaks the batch down to smaller blocks of address locations. And if the machine cannot read the envelope because of the poor contrast between the writing and the envelope, then a human has to manually check it. And that means a possible delay in getting through the system.

Getting back to colour, there is the obvious reason for using white and that is that it goes with every other colour. Our cards come in every colour you can think of, and white shows every colour well. And the card stock we use for the cards has a white base colour. So for us it is a no-brainer to use white envelopes.

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