Panic attack – Alison Healy on the Great Sheep Panic of 1888

Unruly flocks

The urge to panic is never far away these days, but back in 1800s England, sheep were the ones doing all the panicking. As keen students of sheep panics will know, there have been several such mysterious events, but the Great Sheep Panic of 1888 is probably the most notable one.

Between 8pm and 9pm on November 3rd, tens of thousands of sheep broke from their pens and enclosures across 200 square miles of Oxfordshire. Farmers reported finding their flocks scattered far and wide the next morning. Sheep were found in hedges, or huddled in corners of fields, and on roads, looking as though they had been terror stricken.

Dogs are usually to blame for sheep stampedes, but this was such an enormous event across such a huge area that dogs were ruled out.

Sheep, of course, are notoriously, well, sheep-like when it comes to copying behaviour. A farmer might have successfully shepherded a flock into a corner of a field until one rebel spots a chink of light in a hedge and makes a run for it. Suddenly 78 sheep are following her at a rate of knots. Herding mice at a crossroads is marginally easier than moving sheep.


But again, the scale of the 1888 stampede ruled out the theory that sheep were just being sheep.

Five years later, another sheep panic occurred in the same area, at around the same time, and a study published by the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society concluded that a sudden, extremely thick and heavy darkness had caused it.

The London Times carried a letter on the 1888 incident with the headline “An extraordinary phenomenon”. The authors, signed Oakshott and Millard, noted it was a very dark night, and there had been lightning, but doubted that either circumstance would account for such an effect being produced over the large area. They suggested a small earthquake as the cause, although there was no record of this. They asked readers for plausible explanations but more than 130 years later they are still waiting.

While sheep are easily panicked, they can occasionally cause a flurry of panic among timorous folk. We had one such sheep on our farm when we were growing up. Mahuggins was a sickly lamb who was nurtured back to life with bottles of milk and an occasional tincture of poitín, beside the warm Stanley range.

Because she was a pet lamb, she was very affectionate and when she had been released back to the flock she still liked to jump up and playfully nudge us. It was a great novelty when she was small, but as animals tend to do, she grew up. She continued to chase after us and playfully nudge us, but that nudge was now capable of sending a child flying, and it often did.

In fact, I seem to have spent my childhood being pursued by a variety of farm animals. The wicked gander chased everyone, but I was the only one to be chased by a pig. I was walking down the field minding my own business when I heard a snort and saw the pig hurtling towards me. The speed of a pig on a mission is surprisingly impressive.

For someone who was never fast enough to get through the heats of the local Community Games, I sprinted like an Olympic champion before throwing myself on the mercy of the yard gate. Had there been a pig chasing me at every athletic event, I could have been a contender.

But being chased by farm animals puts me in good company, if the story about Brendan Behan is true. A walking trail in Wicklow brings hikers near the Kilcoole cottage once owned by The Ginger Man author JP Donleavy. One walking guide mentions that the writer awoke to shouts one morning and, upon investigation he found playwright Brendan Behan calling from a tree. He had been chased by a bull and sought refuge in the branches.

Behan certainly liked to take his friend by surprise. Donleavy once returned from a trip abroad to find the cottage resembling a crime scene, with a broken window and everything in disarray.

He had been working on The Ginger Man and when he picked up the manuscript, he found that the intruder had read it and scribbled many suggested edits in the margins. The intruder also left his signature with a flourish – Brendan Behan.

Annoyed at first at the edits, JP Donleavy said he eventually took many of the suggestions on board.

But we will never know if Behan took any of Donleavy’s suggestions on board when it came to dealing with bulls, and the correct etiquette to follow when visiting friends.