Term of the day: owling

Travel obligations and internet issues are going to be interfering with daily posts for at least some of the next 10 days to two weeks. So nobody will go into withdrawal, however, The Legal Genealogist offers…

The term of the day:


Which, as I’m sure you suspected, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with owls.

owlIn English law, owling was “the offense of transporting wool or sheep out of the kingdom; so called from its being usually carried on in the night.”1

It was a felony as a crime against the public trade, “forbidden by the common law and more particularly by statute.”2

The issue was trying to keep the quality of English wool higher than anywhere else, which meant in particular keeping English sheep in England. Spiriting the beasties out of the country, particularly by sea, was considered a very serious offense indeed.

The penalties varied over time. But in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the statute provided that, for the first offense of transporting live sheep, the penalty would be “forfeiture of goods, and imprisonment for a year, and that, at the end of the year, the left hand shall be cut off in some public market, and shall be there nailed up in the openest place.”

The second offense carried the death penalty.3

Whoo hoo.


Image: Open Clip Art Library, user johnny automatic

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 861, “owling.”
  2. St. George Tucker, ed., Blackstone’s Commentaries (Philadelphia, Birch and Small: 1803), 4:154; digital images, Google Books (http://books.google.com : accessed 10 Oct 2013).
  3. Ibid.
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8 Responses to Term of the day: owling

  1. Fascinating! Love this kind of stuff (well love everything you write).

  2. Celia Lewis says:

    but…but…but… it was only a little sheep over the border, sir…
    Losing a hand was a major cost – I guess people took the chance to make a bit of money. Big consequence to owling, we see.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Over the border it was probably just a few of my Scots-Irish relatives, Celia! But over the ocean… a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Or shipload of sheep.

  3. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Interesting that the word is applied only to “the offense of transporting wool or sheep. . .” since there are so many other nefarious activities that might take place under the protection of darkness!?!?!?

  4. Connie says:

    Really interesting! I wonder if it included other types of animal – i.e. alpacas, which they tended to call alpaca wool or llama wool.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I can’t find anything that suggests when the first alpaca or llama might have been imported into England, but since this is very old common law dating back to the reign of the first Elizabeth (and earlier), I doubt that it would have covered anything other than English sheep. The idea was that the wool of the English sheep was regarded as superior, and that’s what the law was designed to protect.

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