RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1880. Black sheep. Nature. A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science 23 (30 December): 193.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8, textual corrections by Sue Asscher 3.2007. RN2

[page] 193

Black Sheep

THE following extract of a letter from Mr. Sanderson of Chislehurst, who permits me to publish it, seems worth placing on record. It relates to the former frequent appearance of spotted or black sheep in the Australian flocks, as long as animals thus coloured were of use to man, although they were never, as far as Mr. Sanderson knows, separately bred from, and certainly not in his own case. On the other hand, as soon as coloured sheep ceased to be of use they were no longer allowed to grow up, and their numbers rapidly decreased. I have elsewhere assigned reasons for the belief that the occasional appearance of dark-coloured or piebald sheep is due to reversion to the primeval colouring of the species. This tendency to reversion appears to be most difficult quite to eradicate, and quickly to gain in strength if there is no selection. Mr. Sanderson writes:—"In the early days before fences were erected and when shepherds had charge of very large flocks (occasionally 4000 or 5000) it was important to have a few sheep easily noticed amongst the rest; and hence the value of a certain number of black or partly black sheep, so that coloured lambs were then carefully preserved. It was easy to count ten or a dozen such sheep in a flock, and when one was missing it was pretty safe to conclude that a good many had strayed with it, so that the shepherd really kept count of his flock by counting his speckled sheep. As fences were erected the flocks were made smaller, and the necessity for having these spotted sheep passed away. Their wool also being of small value the practice soon grew of killing them off as lambs, or so young that they had small chance of breeding, and it surprised me how at the end of my sheep-farming experience of about eight years the percentage of coloured lambs produced was so much smaller than at the beginning. As the quantity of coloured wool from Australia seems to have much diminished, the above experience would appear to be general."   


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

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