Artistically, circles in different media and of different size in the landscape have been a hall-mark of the land-art of Richard Long for much of the last half-century. I illustrated one recently that he had created at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, in 2017.
This circle could be a Long but it isn’t. Nor is it an archaeological crop-mark or one of the supposedly mysterious crop-circles which have appeared in the landscape in recent years. This appeared overnight, in the same field that is occupied by our flock of rare breed sheep.
The grass has been scuffed and worn down by repeated circular movement to create the circle, as this photograph of detail shows:
What is it and who created it? It was probably created by a Hebridean sheep – or so I infer, though I cannot prove this since neither I nor anyone else saw it being made. Not that the sheep in question is a budding ovine artist; rather was the circle created in distress and perhaps some pain. The explanation, however far-fetched, seems to be this.
Right from the first minutes of this flock being in this field, sheep were pushing into the bracken along its eastern edge to reach the fresh young leaves growing on brambles; and there are clumps of bramble dotted across the field offering similar delights. These brambles have long runners, growing out laterally and often rooting at the further end. Soon after the sheep arrived, our breakfast-time inspection saw that one Hebridean was first of all lying down, which is unusual so early, then kneeling, as sheep sometimes do to browse grass, but not eating. It was then struggling as if pulled down by some invisible force. When we reached it, it did not run away – because it could not. The creature had managed to tie itself up in its own thick knot of wrap-around bramble so that not only were its front legs hobbled but strands from below were also tied round its neck and throat so that every time it struggled it was in danger of throttling itself.
It took us 45 minutes to cut through what was tantamount to a 2 inch-thick rope around its throat, tangled up with other bramble strands and long-haired fleece. The sheep, though trembling, lay passive throughout, as if it knew we were trying to help; but the moment we cut the last strand from legs to neck, it was up and away like a shot.
I think the circle of worn grass was caused by this sheep during the night as it struggled to free itself from the brambles it had accidentally collected, going round and round at the end of a bramble runner still fixed in the ground. In so doing it succeeded only in tying itself literally in knots of twisted bramble which had also become entrapped in its long-haired fleece.
When another Hebridean made the same mistake two days later we recognised the symptoms from a distance with binoculars. It took us only half-an hour to sort this one out, for we arrived with the tools in hand this time; but it’s an unusual way to spend the afternoon of Christmas Day.
Neither sheep shows any ill-effects. I have no photographs to illustrate these incidents for each was an emergency, with no time for sideshows. And both sheep left sharpish, rather ungraciously we felt, so there was no opportunity for selfies afterwards.
P.S. Saturday Dec 29. Having thought of the interpretative explanation for the circle, I went back to check again today. Because I was looking for it, I found a small hole in the ground more or less at the centre of the circle. It could have been that of a single bramble runner, one that eventually snapped or was pulled out of the ground by an agitated sheep; but I am not convinced.