Mysteries, Oddities, and Everything Strange: Great Sheep Panic

Bridget Vaughan, Staff Writer

Great Sheep Panic: A Baaad Situation

Animals have frequently done a bunch of unexpected and unexplained things. They are impossible to predict despite our knowledge of them, and even those that might be held dear can act up in the strangest of ways. The idea of mass hysteria occurring among these furry creatures might be a bit of an oddity, but it can and has happened. Cattle that have pretty boring lives act up once in a while, and this event is just one of a documented array that can make us question how much we know about the natural world. This is the Great Sheep Panic.

On November 3, 1888, it was a quiet night in Oxfordshire, England. It was a bit darker than normal, and a storm in the distance produced occasional flashes of lightning, but other than that, it seemed average all around. Nothing existed that was out of the ordinary, in fact, until the morning after. In the early morning of November 4, 1888, found that the sheep of the area had escaped from their fields and fences in a fit of terror and fled to distant shrubbery, forestry, and other natural features. Many bunched together and found themselves squashed as one mass in the corner of a field. Some of these sheep had run miles from the fields that they had originated from. 

Apparently, these sheep had escaped from their homes as early as 8 P.M. the night before. The residents of Oxfordshire agreed the troublemaker could not have been a single person, since the sheer amount of displaced sheep, numbering in the tens of thousands, would not have been humanly possible to create. The phenomenon went unexplained, and the next year, a very similar crisis happened in Berkshire, England. On December 4, 1893, yet another happened in Oxfordshire yet again, and the impact even spread to sheep living in Gloucester and other neighboring towns. Sheep are known for being easily startled and shy animals, but the volume of this event even leads even the most educated scientists to question the explanation for such a grand-scale escape.

Some local farmers who had been impacted by the event suggested the possibility of an earthquake, but there had been nothing recorded that night. Any type of meteor, eclipse, supernova, or other phenomenon in the sky was not reported to occur, so that possibility is eliminated as well. A determined naturalist named Oliver Vernon Aplin wanted to find the true cause of this event, so he began to interview, investigate, and document anything he could find. He reported that there was a strange dark cloud present that night, spreading so much darkness that a person couldn’t see their hands in front of them. He hypothesized that the intense darkness frightened the sheep, who grew scared and eventually caused the sheep around them to grow terrified as well. The hysteria would spread throughout the whole pen, and eventually, the entire lot of sheep would be sent running.

Even one sheep beginning to panic can trigger a ripple effect, spreading to pens, stables, and farms in the vicinity until all the sheep in the area are sent running. There is also a possibility that some sheep carried a virus or bug and spread it to the rest of the pack. The probability of the sheep triggering some viral event at the same time, though, is slim to none. The same event occurring in 1893 also did not have a plausible explanation for the panic, as there were no natural happenings documented that night in the sky or on land. In the 1893 event, many had contacted the police, who investigated and came up empty-handed. There really was no potential explanation for why the sheep of southern England could have roused themselves up and burst like a piñata all across the countryside.

Perhaps the most legitimate explanation possible is Mr. Aplin’s suggestions. Sheep contained in such tight and claustrophobic spaces would be scared already, but one sheep exhibiting signs of hysteria and bumping into others like a pinball would spread panic in a fitful chain reaction. Additionally, the magnitude of the issue adds to its significance. One sheep going berserk might not be something to write home about, but it is labeled as important once a larger number of sheep engage in it. The explanations for this group panic are often mysterious or unexplained, and as much as one might try, sometimes there just isn’t a solution. Sheep can just be sheep sometimes.

Similar situations occurring with human subjects have been documented and studied heavily, but the idea of a sheep panic is a little strange. Regardless of its oddity, it is still one of the most interesting natural mass hysteria events in human history. The event hasn’t taken place for over one hundred years, and since light pollution has taken over our night skies, it might never happen again. At least our sheep will continue to be safe and sound.