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.
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.
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.
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.
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.