Horace the pig-headed sheep has a nation enthralled

HORACE the Hermit Sheep has been evading capture for six years, which is why it looks as wild and woolly as any outlaw could. Now two Yorkshire shepherds have promised to bring the rogue animal in and all of New Zealand is watching.

Horace is half-Merino, a sheep bred for annual shearing, so his stubborn refusal to follow the flock when the rest of them get rounded up has left him with a big problem.

He (or possibly she, actually) is struggling to walk under accumulated fleece, according to Francine Murray, who will be going after Horace with her husband, Stuart, and a selection from their 10 dogs, on Wednesday or Thursday next week, with Press and TV cameras in attendance

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Francine, 52, worked as a freelance shepherd and ran a small flock of her own on the Yorkshire Wolds until she emigrated in 2004 with her husband, former Bridlington firefighter and shearing contractor Stuart Murray, and they set up their own farm at Sheffield, near Christchurch, breeding pedigree Cheviots. They still do some casual work and are regular helpers at the musters of stock on Horace’s vast farm in the Upper Rakaia hills of the Canterbury region, of which Christchurch is the main city.

Francine was known as Francine Harrison before she married Stuart in 2002 and they worked mainly around Langtoft and Kilham before they emigrated – with their daughter, Sammy Jo, now 17, and their three best dogs.

Nobody is sure that Horace actually is a male, although that is the assumption for the time being. Francine thinks he might well turn out to be a ewe.

It is unusual for a sheep to “go hermit”, as the New Zealanders refer to one which decides to break away and live alone, but it has been known before.

A Merino wether called Shrek became internationally famous for evading capture in the neighbouring Otago region for the best part of eight years. When finally caught, in 2004, he was carrying 27 kilos (60 lb) of wool compared to the 4.5 kg average for his breed. It was enough to make 20 men’s suits.

It was about then that Horace began his or her development from slippery young rascal to notorious woolly mammoth and Mrs Murray has followed the saga.

She said on the telephone to the Yorkshire Post: “You get the odd sheep they call a woolly one – meaning it is wily enough to hide from the dogs.

“And then you get the occasional real hermit, which simply does not want to mingle with the rest. This one just stands while the mobs move forward around him, then turns away and goes back up the hill.

“There was always something else to do, rather than chase him down. It can take three or four hours to get through a muster as it is. But now he is starting to look like a welfare case and it’s time to bring him in.

“And the farm manager, Brian May, has said we can have him if we go with him to do the job.

“Once we have got behind him, we should be able to just walk him down the hill. If he lays down I don’t know if we could carry him, with the weight of all that wool. But we’ve got a rescue helicopter standing by in case needed.”

She is arranging to have Horace hand-clipped, at a local fair coming up on December 4, and his fleece spun into a huge ball of wool, to be died rebellious red and auctioned to raise money for the local mountain rescue service.

Horace’s contrariness has probably saved him from the slaughterhouse. His father was a Suffolk ram, making him a cross known as a Blackface, so his wool is not as fine as a pure Merino’s and he would probably have been sold to a butcher long ago if he had been rounded up. Now, he probably has a career as a celebrity ahead of him.