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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Boner   [December 1869 – early January 1870]1

My dear Sir,

On 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 for which I beg to thank 〈you〉 〈    〉 though〈t〉 over what you said about the she〈ep〉 breeding in their changed wild state.2 It occurred to me that the opportunity for their doing so was hardly given, as they were shot at 〈the〉 end of the season, the Jäger3 being only too glad to make use of their right to take them after a certain day, as the booty afforded them a feast of which they all partook. I was unable from my own experience to say whether any escaped being shot, & thus had an opportunity of testing their power of living through the Winter. On several points I was desirous of hearing the opinions of others, for it was a matter of conscience not to mislead you, and I also wished to furnish you with whatever information I could gather on the subject. I spoke to friends here; men who, like myself, were chamois hunters and were well-acquainted with mountain life; and afterwards wrote to a Jäger in the bavarian 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 opinions, at 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 〈  〉ing to him cer〈tain〉 questi〈ons〉 which I begged him 〈to a〉nswer 〈  〉 and decidedly. I 〈  〉 asked him to speak the matter over with his comrades, so to obtain their experience as well. His letter you will fi〈nd〉 interesting, I think; and I translate it and send it herewith. You will see that what he writes rather tends to disprove what I said about the sheep remaining wild, which was the result of my experience.4 Truth however is, or ought to be, the end & aim of all investigation, and I give you the whole of his letter though it tells somewhat against me.

“I now proceed to answer your questions as well as I can.

Yes; every year nearly some sheep stay away from the herd and grow wild, however not as wild as a chamois or a red-deer—so I think at least.*

It is true one must stalk them very ca〈refully〉 〈5 or 6 words missing〉 best wind in 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 〈other〉wise—a whistle 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 have vanished. But 〈still I should〉 look on such sheep as p〈erfectl〉y wild because when a small herd of 3 or 〈4〉 with their sheep-bell are driven into their neighbourhood, the wild sheep soon associate with the flock, and thus they are driven home later with the rest and the wild sheep grow again as tame as the others & remain so. To recover a sheep in this way the terrain must however of course be favorable. When wild-sheep are not caught or shot there is no thought of them propagating themselves. The wild sheep can to be sure, subsist easily and find food; that is to say when there is no snow or only a very little.

Such sheep keep in Winter on the southern slopes of the mountains in hollows where grass of the year before is always to be found. But if such spots be covered by snow-drifts then the sheep must wander further to look for food; and then the animal is lost; for then the snow hangs about the long wool to such a degree that the creature gets exhausted and thus perishes.

An acquaintance asserts that the wool of sheep which are not shorn in Spring & Autumn gets too long and the animals begin to grow bare-naked—and then they die a miserable death.

4 or 5 words missing〉 sheep living in 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 〈kn〉ow how to ma〈  〉 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 and frozen. Once 〈2 or 3 words missing〉 〈in〉 November on the steep 〈  〉 of the 〈mou〉ntain and 5 days later went out 〈to〉 fetch him. (To shoot him is what he means.) However the night before was a hard frost, and on awaking the ram was precipitated down into a terrible abyss: a proof more that under certain circumstances it is not always so easy for them to subsist as one supposes.

My own experience has shown me that the ram is less likely to run wild than the ewe. This arises probably from the circumstance that the ewe likes to remain away from the herd some days before she drops her lamb, and afterwards wants to remain with her young one quite separated from the others. As long as the young one can be caught the mother naturally runs about with it: if however some weeks have passed then both are wild. I am persuaded that in some instances a lamb is to be seen with the ewe grown wild.

A neighbour tells me that once two ewes subsisted through the Winter, each of which had a lamb. Three died, & the old sheep that survived came in Spring to the flock and was 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 I ought howev〈er,〉 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 the ewe’s 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 as if she still has 〈2 or 3 words missing〉 one, nor did it ever 〈  〉 〈re〉turn 〈to〉 the natural size. This 〈  〉 prob〈ably〉 from the cold & deficient food.”5

Such, dear Sir, is the res〈ult〉 of my questioning. The informat〈ion〉 is not without intere〈st〉 at all   I think it right to give it you bearing on the subject of the fir〈st〉 letter I had the honor to send you.

Is Beckenham your temporary address, or will a letter find you there always? The work in which you specially devote your investigations to the human race I look forward to with impatient interest.6 Is it soon to appear?

Yours, my dear Sir | Most obediently | Charles Boner

* In my letter to him in asking about the sheep & their growing wild, I had said “as wild as a chamois or red-deer.”

To Charles Darwin, Esqq | &c—&c—&c

CD annotations

1.1 On … least. 3.2] crossed blue crayon
5.3 and then … perishes. 5.5] double scored blue crayon
6.1 An … death. 6.3] double scored blue crayon
9.2 lamb.... died,] underl blue crayon

CD note:

Boner 〈    〉 does 〈2 or three words missing〉 good. 〈2 or three words missing〉 apt to 〈2 or three words missing〉 hungry 〈2 or three words missing〉 have lost skill 〈    〉 pass over steep [rocky] slopes— In one case 2 ewes passed the 〈winter〉 free, but three lambs perished.—7

4 or 5 words missing〉 Hunting) in the 〈4 or 5 words missing〉 1860 p. 92) that 〈3 or 4 words missing〉 w〈il〉d, (but goats never) 〈2 or 3 words missing〉 mountains & have to be shot;8 but 〈2 or 3 words missing〉 were left & found capable [interl] [reportedly] breeding, they ought hardly to be called feral.—

(Feral sheep) [square brackets in MS]

Vol. 2. p. 32 I say never feral9 [added pencil]


The date range is established by the relationship between this letter, the letter from Charles Boner, 25 November [1869] (see n. 2, below), and the letter to Charles Boner, [before 8 January 1870] (Correspondence vol. 18).
In a letter that has not been found, CD evidently asked whether the feral sheep described by Boner had bred successfully in their wild state; see letter from Charles Boner, 25 November [1869].
Jäger: ‘hunter’ (German).
In Variation 2d ed., 2: 5 n. 10, CD cited Boner 1860, p. 92, adding that Boner later found that strayed sheep were not able to establish themselves: ‘they generally perish from the frozen snow clinging to their wool, and they have lost the skill necessary to pass over steep icy slopes. On one occasion two ewes survived the winter, but their lambs perished.’
The reference is to Descent.
See n. 5, above.
See letter from Charles Boner, 25 November [1869] and n. 5. CD refers to Variation 2: 32.


In answer to CD’s queries, relates further details about feral sheep: they are sterile when wild, but can become tame again.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Boner
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160: 237
Physical description
5pp damaged †, 2 CD notes damaged

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7017,” accessed on 16 July 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17