The Great Sheep Panic of 1888

Jun 2, 2021 0 comments

Sheep are notoriously timid and nervous animal, and can get startled easily. But what mysterious provocation could have caused thousands of sheep to lose their mind at once has baffled scientists for years.

The first widely recorded sheep panic occurred on the night of November 3, 1888, in Oxfordshire. Around eight o’clock, tens of thousands of sheep across an area of about 200 square miles, around the town of Reading, impulsively and simultaneously went berserk. They broke through their pens and dwellings and bolted out into the open fields, destroying property and overrunning fences as they did so. The next morning they were found widely scattered, some miles from their fields. Some of them still panting with terror under hedges, and many crowded into corners of fields.

Great Sheep Panic of 1888

Illustration by Nuvolanevicata |

In a letter to the editor of the Hardwicke’s Science-gossip magazine, two local farmers described the incident, hoping that someone might be able to offer an explanation:

I beg to call attention to a remarkable circumstance which occurred in this immediate locality on the night of Saturday, November 3rd. At a time as near eight o’clock as possible the tens of thousands of sheep folded in the large sheep-breeding districts, north, east, and west of Reading were taken with a sudden fright, jumping their hurdles, escaping from the fields, and running hither and thither; in fact, there must for some time have been a perfect stampede. Early on Sunday morning the shepherds found the animals under hedges and in the roads, panting as if they had been terror-stricken. The extent of the occurrence may be judged when we mention that every large farmer from Wallingford on the one hand, to Twyford on the other, has reported that his sheep were similarly frightened, and it is also noteworthy that with two or three exceptions the hill-country north of the Thames seems to have been principally affected. We have not heard, nor can any of the farmers give any reasonable explanation of the facts we have described. The night was intensely dark, with occasional flashes of lightning, but we scarcely think the latter circumstance would account for such a wide-spread effect. We would suggest the probability of a slight earthquake being the cause, but, perhaps you or some of the readers of Science-Gossip may be able to offer a more satisfactory explanation.

The possibility of mischief was ruled out as the affected area was large, and it would have been impossible for any troublemakers to carry out a coordinated attack across several villages. The other explanation was some kind of an atmospheric phenomenon that spooked the living daylights out of the sheep. But no extraordinary meteorological event, such as a meteor shower or an exploding meteor, occurred that night, except that it was “a very dark night” with the possibility of a few lightning flashes. But could darkness and lightning have triggered such panic among the sheep?

Great Sheep Panic of 1888

Illustration by Ladiseno |

The events were repeated again the next year not far from Reading, and four years later, in 1893, yet another panic attack was observed among the sheep. Again the epicenter of the attack was in Oxfordshire, in the northern and middle parts of the county, but its effects were felt in the adjoining counties as well.

On the night of December 4, 1893, another very remarkable panic among sheep occurred in the northern and middle parts of Oxfordshire, extending into adjoining parts of the counties of Warwick, Gloucester, and Berks. Individual farmers on finding the next morning that their sheep (almost all sheep in this part of the country are folded or “penned” on turnips on the arable land at that time of year) had broken out during the night, and observing that the condition of the pens and hurdles, as well as of the sheep themselves in some cases, pointed to the fact of the sheep having been severely frightened, naturally concluded that they had been worried by a dog; some, finding that the sheep exhibited no marks of being worried, concluded that they had only been frightened, perhaps by a dog, perhaps by a fox; others applied to the police. The result of any inquiries made by the police, or privately, or by mentioning the fact among neighbours, however, was to elicit the fact that the panic had extended over a very large tract of country, and that unless it was allowed that all the dogs and foxes in the district had with concerted action simultaneously arisen and attacked hundreds of flocks on the same night, this attempt to account for the panic would have to be abandoned. The panic was then attributed by all flock-owners (save one, who seemed very loathe to exonerate some sparrow-catching boys!) to some atmospheric or meteoric cause, or to an earthquake.

Oliver Vernon Aplin

Nobody heard a meteor explode, or felt an earthquake, and there was nothing odd about the weather either. The idea that darkness disoriented the animals was discussed again. Naturalist Oliver Vernon Aplin took particular interest in the 1893 incident, and launched a full investigation, making enquiries and talking with eye witnesses.

Great Sheep Panic of 1888

Photo: Hugoht |

Very few people, probably, have ever been out in a really dark night, and it is impossible for anyone who has not had this experience to imagine what it is like and the sense of helplessness it causes. That a thick darkness of this kind was experienced in the early part of the night of the recent panic (at a time agreeing with that at which, so far as was known, the sheep stampeded), was proved by abundant evidence. One report said that it was between 8 and 9 P.M. when such a thick and heavy darkness came on that a man could not see his own hand. Another witness wrote that a little before 8 o’clock there was an extraordinary black cloud travelling from north-west to south-east, which appeared to be rolling along the ground. The darkness lasted for thirty or forty minutes, and during that time it was like being shut up in a dark room. Later in the night—long after the panics—there were several flashes of lightning.

Nature, January 27, 1921

Aplin explained that animals see perfectly well on ordinary dark nights, but on exceptionally dark nights when nothing can be seen animals can feel trapped and be overcome by a sense of helplessness. Sheep crowded in small pens would knock against one another or the feeding trough and be startled. The first one to get frightened would make a little rush causing several collisions and starting a domino effect. Before long the fear of the unknown would cause the entire herd to make a mad rush.

They would all make a rush, and their terror and the momentarily recurring incentives to, and aggravations of, it in the shape of collisions would only subside when the sheep had broken out and were in the open, clear of one another and of their troughs and hurdles. If this is the explanation of the panic, then it is easy to understand why folded sheep are so much more likely to suffer than those lying in open fields. The heavy, oppressive atmosphere accompanying the thick darkness, the susceptibility of sheep to atmospheric disturbance, and their nervous and timid dispositions would all tend to increase the fright the sheep experienced. The cause of the panic being a cloud rolling along so low down as (apparently) to touch the ground, the tops of the hills and the high-lying ground would naturally be most affected; and this is observed to be the case, although locally the usual direction followed by thunderstorms has indicated a line along which sheep stampeded on nearly every farm.

Nature, January 27, 1921

# Sheep Panics, Nature, January 27, 1921
# The Mysterious Oxfordshire Sheep Panic of 1888, ESOTERX


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}