Old Macdonald – A Blog about Farm Animals
As I am sure you know, ‘Old Macdonald had a Farm …’
I am not sure what this says about the need to catalogue and codify our knowledge – but Wikipedia has quite a lot to say about the song. Each verse adds the sounds made by another farm animal and verses are generally cumulative. If you don’t know the words you can see Wikipedia, which also discusses other versions and many translations into different languages.
Farming in Britain
With Wikipedia as my source of information, I will say just a little about agriculture in the United Kingdom. Any statistics I give will be approximate and probably out-of-date. [I will consider agriculture in Britain as more or less equivalent to agriculture in England. Wikipedia points out that the available agricultural land in Scotland and Wales is generally of lower quality.]
About a third of the agricultural area of is used for arable crops with the rest mostly grassland. About half of the arable land is used for cereal of which two-thirds is wheat. We have about 30 million sheep, ten million cattle, ten million poultry and five million pigs. Farming is highly intensive and mechanised but the UK still only produces 60% of the food needed. The country annually exports food and drink to the value of £15 000 million, with imports at £30 000 million. Almost all this trade is with Western Europe.
You might like to guess the top agricultural products by value. You could probably get the top ten or twelve, perhaps not in exact order. Here they are, listed by value – milk, cattle meat, chicken meat, pig meat, wheat, sheep meat, potatoes, rapeseed, eggs, sugar beet, turkey meat, barley, carrots and turnips …
I won’t go any further but this leads into my pictures of farm animals. With this list you might expect to see cattle, chickens, pigs, sheep and turkeys – but you won’t! This is not the place to discuss farming methods but intensive methods mean that chickens and turkeys are not normally see outside. Pigs and cattle are also sometimes farmed inside buildings. I can only show you what I have seen.
I know. We don’t farm horses but you see them outside in fields and I have decided to include them in this blog. We used to have farm horses before the mechanization with tractors but now horses are for riding or racing.
English is such a strange language that we don’t have a word for one of these beasts. You can skip this bit if you are not interested in the linguistic issues.
The word ‘cattle’ did not originally refer just to these animals. It derives from the Latin ‘caput’ (head) and originally it meant movable personal property, especially livestock of any kind, as opposed to the ‘real property’ or land. It’s a variant of ‘chattels’ and is cognate with ‘capital’ in the economic sense. In the King James Bible, ‘cattle’ means ‘livestock’ and ‘deer’ means ‘wildlife.’
The Anglo-Saxon word which became ‘cow’ had the old plural ‘kine’ now occasionally used as an archaic plural form.
In the UK, the USA and British influenced countries of the Commonwealth we have several terms.
- The adult male animal is a bull.
- A castrated male is a ‘bullock’ or a ‘steer’ (US). Sometimes a bullock used as a working draft animal is called an ox. (Yes, the plural is oxen.) Of course in some circumstances ‘ox’ is a more general reference to the meat or carcass of the animal, for example ‘ox-tail.’
- An adult female, after having one or two calves is a ‘cow.’
- A young female is a ‘heifer.’ (To those unfamiliar with farming there is no distinction. A cow is any female older than a calf.)
- A young animal before weaning is a ‘calf.’
There are other terms used in farming and outside the UK.
In general we call them cattle and they may be beef cattle or dairy cattle.
We think of sheep as white and generally they are white. (In a field of fresh white snow they look a very dirty white or even light brown!)
Sometimes some or all of the wool may be dark brown or black by a perfectly normal process of genetic variation. But we have the idiomatic expression ‘black sheep’ with its pejorative connotations. The black sheep of the family is the person who didn’t quite fit into the family’s expectations. You can read about this in Wikipedia. Traditionally the black sheep was an obvious prominent anomaly and its coloured wool was less valuable. It is a term found in many languages although some illustrate the concept differently as a ‘white crow.’
Now the value of the wool is insignificant and farmers generally don’t attempt to control the wool colour. We see sheep and lambs with black wool more often. Some breeds are all brown.
As I noted above we have a large dairy industry based on dairy cattle. In many other countries cheese derived from sheep or goats is more common than in the UK. Here are some goats from Croatia – from the zoo on Brijuni.
We see cattle in the fields in summer and more hardy sheep may be seen in the winter but pigs are rarely seen. I think most pig production is intensive and indoors. You may sometimes see them in large numbers in their corrugated iron arcs or just two or three in a field, perhaps rare breeds for show.
Precise terminology in farming for these animals is as complicated as for cattle but most of the time they are just pigs. Swine is an archaic term and originally the word ‘pig’ was used for a young swine, what we would now call a piglet!
The adult male is a ‘boar,’ a word now generally associated with the expression ‘wild boar’ for the non-domesticated (or feral) animal. The adult female is a ‘sow.’ The word ‘hog’ generally refers to a mature, fully grown animal but can be synonymous with pig.
I included horses because I felt like it and I will end with some Shetland Ponies.
(Donkeys will come in another blog.)