Farming Magazine - May, 2010


Timeless Tool for Livestock

The continued practical use of animal bells
By J.F. Pirro
As the border collie rounds up her flock, Miracle, a Shetland wether (with bell) leads his American Miniature Cheviot ewes at Shepherd’s Croft farm in Bucks County, Pa.
Photos courtesy of Toni Kellers, unless otherwise noted.

In the early 1980s, Sheep Shelter Farm’s Don and Karen Moss’ 14-year-old daughter Kathy conducted a Bucks County, Pa., farm survey. Eighty percent of her respondents reported that domestic dogs were infringing on their pastures. She knew firsthand and had put her parents onto the problem, one that hasn’t changed all that much today.

Sheep Shelter Farm in Perkasie, Pa., never lost any of its flock, but it could have. One time, Don traced a German shepherd back to its owner. He explained how he’d found the dog in his pastures, but the owner denied it: “No, no, my dog wouldn’t do that,” he said. Don’s response was blunt: “Well, he did, and next time he’s in there, the law gives me the right to destroy the animal.”

“I never saw that dog anymore,” Don recalls now.

Another time, Don found a hunting dog in his pastures. It wasn’t chasing his flock, but the hound was confused, couldn’t get out and may have done some defensive destruction had it not been removed.

A livestock bell from Mexico on a Jacob sheep, an ancient breed reportedly from Biblical times at Jim and Meg Lomax’s farm in Pipersville, Pa.
Photo courtesy of James E. Diamond, Ph.D.

You would think Don, who chairs his local land preservation committee and is the former chair and a present director of the Bucks-Montgomery Wool Cooperative, would have more trouble with the various wildlife on his rural property, which is just under 15 acres, 9 of it in pasture and the rest woods. Deep Run Creek bisects and runs behind the tract, so there are plenty of foxes and an ever-increasing number of coyotes.

Over the years, as a means of protection, his sheep have worn domestic animal bells —“our early warning system that really worked well,” Don says. “Bells were an interesting point in our [near 30-year] history of raising sheep.”

The Moss farm —home to a flock of 25 Karakuls (with 12 breeding ewes), which they raise for their meat, and another four, Romneys and Corriedales for wool for Karen, who spins and hand weaves) —is not alone in its use of bells. Neighbors Toni and Pete Keller decorate and adorn their Dorsets as a novelty.

Also, the history and purpose of such bells to manage farm herds and flocks is an obsession for Ottsville, Pa.’s, James E. Diamond, the now retired dean of agriculture and environmental sciences at neighboring Delaware Valley College. He’s studied the history, and the farm practicality, of such bells. His book, “Domestic Animal Bells From Around the World,” is a by-product of his travels to 50 countries on five continents as a 10-year agricultural and extension education consultant for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and United States Agency for International Development.

A Bulgarian livestock bell on a Jacob sheep at Jim and Meg Lomax’s farm in Pipersville, Pa.
Photo courtesy of James E. Diamond, Ph.D.

The book’s explanation of bells makes good, practical common sense. Some of it focuses on best practice farm management: The bells help a farmer determine if his herd or flock is being chased, or just grazing. Some of his examination is historically fascinating, like the reason turkeys once wore bells. Some of it is safety: Every smart farmer wants to know where the Tom (male) turkey is so he doesn’t get attacked from behind during mating season. Diamond’s stories, and his worldly collection of over 70 bells that once hung on every imaginable animal are astounding, though his wife Betty just calls him a “ding-a-ling.”

“Bells can be pretty important to management,” says Diamond, who once raised 60 head of Suffolk sheep himself. “They tell you where your sheep are located, or if their laying down and chewing their cud or grazing—or whether something is chasing them. If you hear that loud cadence, something is sure chasing them, and that’s when you get your shotgun and your dogs. So, often, those bells are an alarm system.”

Just a novelty?

Diamond says bells can also be used to “shatter the boredom” of farm life. “It’s pretty flat ground, and pretty repetitive labor, so it can get boring,” he says. “These bells are an icon to a pastoral lifestyle, really. At daybreak, or in the evening, these sounds are appealing, soothing. They add charm and character to rural countrysides as they bong, clang, chime, ring or a cacophony of all these sounds.”

With a border collie after them, this flock of American Miniature Cheviot ewes follows Miracle, a Shetland wether. He is the bellwether for this flock at Shepherd’s Croft Farm in Bucks County, Pa.

It’s true, according to Heather Skorinko, of Suyundalla Farm in Coplay, Pa. These days, she mostly straps a bell around the neck of a wethered sheep, Forest, and on a hand-raised goat, Tilly (short for Matilda), who keeps losing hers.

“I’d always find them in the pastures with my mower,” Don shares.

However, Skorinko has also found that a bell on the matriarch, who leads a flock, allows her to hear her sheep go out to pasture and return.

“We do it just because we like it,” she says. “It’s just cool to have a sheep with bells. I like the sounds of them, but they also help me locate my flock.”

With 150 acres on her 1892 farm, 20 acres of it in rotating pasture, and 200 sheep, management is an important consideration. “We started with one [lamb on a dare issued by her husband, Kenneth], but at one time we had over 300,” Skorinko says.

The Turkey Tie-in

When Europeans immigrated to America, they were amazed by the wild turkeys (Meleagriss gallopavo). They were a favorite food of the Native Americans. Soon, some European transplants began crossbreeding with domestic turkeys from their homelands. Then, heavier and meatier birds—so called bronze birds —became available in the mid-19th century, and for years were the domestic breed of turkey in North America.

The American Miniature Cheviot ewes graze quietly behind Miracle, a Shetland wether. Miracle is watching a border collie who has been moving them around the field at Shepherd’s Croft farm in Bucks County, Pa.

The smaller, original wild turkey was light enough that it could naturally avoid predators and fly up into trees. However, gradually, the heavier stock could not fly as quickly. So to protect them from predators, coyotes and dogs, farmers began putting bells on a few so they “wouldn’t find a pile of feathers,” says Diamond, who purchased the circa 1860 Connecticut-made nickel-coated steel turkey bell in his collection from a general store in Hillsville, Va.

“Today, turkeys are bred in total confinement in pole barns systems,” he laments. “They hardly roam free around the farmstead. Turkeys by nature are tree perchers, but the heavier the birds became, the less able they were to fly like their wild relatives and became targeted prey. The bells would frighten away predators or alert the farmer if his turkeys were in danger.”

Every bell has a story

At Delaware Valley College, Diamond once had a mare that went blind during a pregnancy. She foaled, and immediately a bell was strapped around the foal’s neck so the mother would know where the foal was at all times.

Of course, on a road with a team of horses, just one bell, or a whole strap of sleigh bells, alert bystanders to step aside. An elaborate brass gig saddle bell fits on the withers of a horse, atop the saddle, with loopholes for the reins that lead back to the driver. Forgedale Foundry in Oley, Pa., manufactures beautiful modern gig saddle bells.

Out west, bells on the collars of sheep and other domestic livestock keep big-game hunters from mistaking a cow or a sheep for something else.

Diamond’s U.N. work put him on farms and around livestock and domestic animals all over the globe. An Ethiopian horse bell eventually became the cover photo for his book. That bell lacks a vessel for clappers to strike. Instead, each of six steel clappers clangs against one another.

In many countries, livestock bells are a cottage industry, and so made from materials available in each town. This is also why so many bells have gone undocumented. “It’s one of the reasons I wrote the book,” Diamond says.

Among Diamond’s bells is a goat bell from the Republic of Mali where young boys are responsible for goatherds. “If they lose one, they are punished quite severely,” he says.

Diamond possesses a yak bell from Tibet; the clapper is an actual horn from a yak. “I’ve looked high and low, traveling on farms, looking for bells,” he says.

He has a replica water buffalo bell from Korea. Inside, there’s a Korean character near where the clapper is attached. It puzzled him until he researched it. To ring perfectly, Koreans always said the sound had to capture the innocence of a young girl because (as the legend goes) a village priest once talked a mother into sacrificing her daughter. He threw the girl into the molten metal. After those bells were cast and hung, they rang perfectly and sounded like “Marma, Marma,” like the girl calling for her mother. “It’s a story taught in all the grade schools in Korea like our ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’” Diamond says.

An alternative to no-fault fencing

In a beginning livestock operation or hobby farm, bells can also be a far-less-expensive solution to guarding a flock or herd than no-fault fencing. Secure pastures are a necessity, but also an expense. “Realistically, if they’re open (and without good fencing), it’s hard to go to bed with any peace of mind,” Don says. “You don’t want to come out and find a dead lamb.”

Sheep Shelter Farm has used bells off and on for 20 years, even as Moss has gradually improved his fencing. At first, when money was tight, he had just three strands of barbed wire. Then, for eight years, he had cow fencing, four high-tensile wire strands on posts with one hot wire. Sheep were still getting out, so he improved to six strands, and now eight, three of which are electrified. “It’s harder to push through this without feeling it,” he says. “But in those early years, those bells would warn us. The bells were one thing that allowed us to take (the safety) part and control it.”

By comparison, bells are a cheap alternative or addition. They’re often found discarded at yard sale or auction, and are typically attached on a thick used dog or other animal collar. Livestock supply houses also sell them. “I don’t pay a big price for a Swiss bell or anything,” Skorinko says.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.