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Pull the Wool from your Eyes

Some Things —Like Sheep — are Apolitical



The heavy hand of British politics is — I’m afraid to say — everywhere you look in society. Thanks to the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, the armoury of public opinion has never been so well-stocked. Tweets (or are we calling them ‘exes’ these days?), lengthy Instagram captions, and TikToks have amplified the public voice to an unprecedented degree, supplying the ammunition for high-profile — not to mention highly charged — public debates.

Correspondingly, our views have never been so comprehensively impassioned, strident, or self-assured. Bolstered by an echo-chamber of like-minded folk (don’t you just love social media algorithms?), we confidently ascribe ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to just about every issue of contention: be it serious issues of domestic or foreign policy, or the more mundane question of whether Taylor Swift is or isn’t a legend (answer: great in a crisis; hardly Stevie Nicks, though).

Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against opinions. I am literally writing under the guise of a Viewpoint journalist, and I like to imagine that the irony would not have been lost on me were that the case. What disturbs me, however, is that cultural debates have increasingly developed a moralistic, political undertone. It is no longer enough to ‘agree to disagree’ on the issue of musical tastes, when the issue in question has been polarised as one of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’. Arguments in favour of Swift’s music are rarely done so on the basis that they sound nice — she is, depending on your standpoint, either a morally corrupt fraud, or a bastion of MeToo, feminist empowerment.

To my mind, this owes something to the design of media platforms. Occupying an eccentric no-mans’ land of ‘infotainment’, the line between serious and trivial affairs has been blurred. In the space of a single scroll, one’s attention can be switched from the Gazan humanitarian crisis, to a Black Friday sock deal, to the news that Nigel Farage will once again be plaguing our television screen, to a story about — you’ve guessed it — Britain’s loneliest sheep.

Somewhere within this strange whirlwind of emotions, it is no wonder that this final item, which in the innocent days of yonder might have been considered a ‘Good News Story’, has metamorphosed into an ardent political debate. It appears that the fate of Fiona the Sheep is — rather ironically — anything but black and white.

It’s not the first time that nature has been dragged into the political forecourt. Nor will it be the last; environmental policy is, after all, a central tenet of government regulation. In the last couple of months, Westminster and Holyrood (and by extension everyone with access to a mobile phone) have taken a political stance on fox hunting (effectively now banned in Scotland); prohibited ownership of XL Bully dogs; and debated the camping regulations of Dartmoor National Park.

All these stories can be aligned with the public interest. To various degrees, they bear a meaningful relation to public safety and to the legal rights of individuals, and the fact that they were deemed ‘political’ makes perfect sense.

I find myself taking issue, however, with the idea that we should take a political stance on the fate of — in the words of the press — ‘Britain’s Loneliest Sheep’.

Initially, her story bore all the hallmarks of a Phil-and-Holly-esque breakfast special (which — incidentally — were not at all immune to politicisation either). Marooned at the foot of Cromarty Firth for two years, the ewe was recognised by a passing kayaker and swiftly hauled to safety — Rapunzel style — by a group of volunteer farmers. Nicknamed ‘Fiona’, she was treated to a jaunty hairdo, before settling into her new life at Dalscone Farm in Dumfries. If all this wasn’t enough to get the tears flowing, a legacy ‘Fiona Fund’ was set up, directing all royalties from her display (already around £10,000) to the SSPCA — Scotland’s animal rescue service, and RSABI — a support service for the mental and practical needs of British agricultural workers.

The producers over at Disney could hardly have developed a more saccharine tale, and giddy journalists rejoiced at this semantic gift of a story. Fiona, they declared, had been ‘resc-ewed’; no longer all ‘baa’ herself, the sheep was set to become an icon of the Great British imagination. They had — forgive me — fleeced the tale for all it was worth.

I hope they enjoyed it while it lasted. Before you could say ‘fun sponge’, police were called to the farm to mediate with a crowd of Animal Rising protesters, who claimed to have been helping the sheep — imaginatively dubbed ‘Sheepy’ — first. Flying drones and bearing placards with the slogans ‘SANCTUARY NOT SPECTACLE’ and ‘FROM ISOLATION TO EXPLOITATION’, their showmanship — alongside impassioned comments from online spectators — had the rather counter-productive effect of forcing Fiona into hiding.

This plot twist felt rather more Brothers Grimm than Disney — and speaks volumes about the polarising impact of social media on public debate. The vocabulary of ‘spectacle’ and ‘exploitation’ used to be reserved for issues of humanitarian concern. Appropriated by the likes of PETA, the terms came to be associated with animal welfare, but only in cases of extreme abuse or violence against animals. Their use in Fiona’s context seems almost laughably hyperbolic; she was placed, after all, in the hands of experienced sheep farmers.

Yet, within the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to modern discussion, Fiona’s story has been blown up to the proportions of a moral crusade. Rebranded as a ‘petting zoo’, Dalscone Farm has been characterised as the Cruella de Vil of Scotland’s West Coast — a phenomenon that seems cynical to the extreme, given that the establishment has historically been praised for its ‘inspirational’ approach to animal care.

In such a climate, I worry whether any story can ever be considered ‘good news’ again. Politics can, after all, be projected onto just about everything. Look at this year’s M&S Christmas advert: obviously, we couldn’t enjoy the optics of a roaring fire and colourful paper hats; the clip (filmed in August) was immediately interpreted as an anti-Palestinian political statement, and swiftly removed from the public domain.

At the risk of invoking a broad-brush approach myself, both events reflect the flaws of modern, social-media fed debate. Mirroring the content of these online platforms, our ability to differentiate between issues of a serious or trivial nature has been compromised — every story, however mundane, acquires a moral dimension. Judging by the protestors’ rhetoric, our approach to argumentation has followed a similar trajectory. Devoid of nuance, or an understanding that things—whilst not always perfect—can be pretty much okay, the merest scent of controversy is enough to set our battle reflexes in motion. Thus, the wholesome story of a rescued sheep is forced onto a framework of good against evil.

This development is concerning, given that thoughtful public debate has never been more important. Britain is facing crises on a domestic, international, and existential level—and none of them are morally black-and-white. Equally, life is more than politics, and indiscriminate cynicism is hardly conducive to society’s wellbeing. In fact, the only reasonable moral complaint to make on Fiona’s behalf is that every creature—be they man, woman, or sheep—possesses the right to live out their days in blissful, apolitical solitude. Maybe life on the shingle beach at Cromarty Firth isn’t such a dismal prospect after all.


Illustration by: Lauren McAndrew


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