Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

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I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoay said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

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The benefits of topping.

Today has been a day spent topping. When we first started small holding we spent much of our time watching the experienced farmers in the area and then, a couple of days late, copying them. When they started cutting hay, a day late, so did we – when they sheared their flock so did we (although a lot less expertly). Every year I copied them until I understood why they did what they did and when. In the early years one of the greatest mysteries was “topping“; each year, each field was topped at least once. We did this faithfully but ignorantly. (Topping is cutting the grass short and leaving the remains where they fall rather than taking them for hay or silage)

I now know topping is a valuable part of pasture management. It helps keep down thistles, reeds and other weeds. The regular cutting also promotes a better sward of grass which the animals prefer and benefit from. It cuts down the large stems of grass which the animals are not eating and which have become “leggy” and these, and all the other items cut, lie as mulch so that their nutrients go back into the soil. However, topping has also taught me something much more important, it has taught me about belonging.

We have tried in the main to undertake most of the farming tasks we have to do,  either by hand or without heavy machinery. Some of this is through choice, but a great deal is through necessity as machinery is expensive. As farms have become bigger in Britain farm machinery has grown pari passu with this. Although prices are reasonable they are only reasonable if you want to work an area of over 500 hectares. Vaccines are reasonably priced when you buy enough to inject 500 sheep but can be difficult to get in reasonable volumes to do 25. We do not have a standard tractor on the farm. It would be too expensive and the few times we really have needed one it has been possible to call on the aid of a neighbour. There are people with back-hoe diggers, mobile sawmills and cherry pickers in our valley and they are seen as communal resources. As long as you contribute what you can, machinery or labour, you can call on these other resources.

Because our farm is very hilly, some of our pasture would be quite dangerous to drive on in a tractor for fear of overturning. For this additional reason I felt best to keep temptation out of my reach – if I don’t have a tractor I can’t try topping the steep field with it. Further, there was another problem –  the time I needed a tractor and topper was always the time everyone else needed it too. Topping, therefore,  faced us with a dilemma, as the prospect of mowing a 6 acre meadow, by hand, was pretty daunting.

Thankfully the Italians came to our rescue. DSC_3185In Italy, as many of the farms work olive groves and, also because inheritance law has lead to the growth of very small farms, there is a call for small, two-wheeled tractors. There is a steady demand for machinery which works on a smaller scale.  In Italy, and throughout Europe, there are a number of manufacturers of these small multi-talented tractors. Our first purchase was a Goldoni with a field topper. This makes light work of topping even large fields. Around this time of year I have a pleasant few days following the Goldoni at a brisk walking pace as we top each of our fields.

DSC07601.JPGIt is not too strenuous and there is plenty to keep you interested as you top the field. There is the wildlife to watch. Often this is wildlife trying to flee from the advancing topper but fortunately we are slow enough not to catch any. Today’s walk introduced me  to slow worms and toads as well as allowing me to watch the Red Kites circling overhead.

As we DSC07595.JPGare not taking hay these years (we have too many animals and not enough pasture) we let the meadow rest last year. In addition to the animal life we have also been fortunate to see  orchids growing wild near the damp edges.

However, by far the best sight is looking over the field, past the big cherry tree, over the house and seeing the mountains. Whoever, planned our house back in 1796 knew what they were doing;  they chose a wonderfully sheltered spot which avoids the winds without losing the sun. Looking over the field and knowing that, again, you have walked every square foot of that field and checked it is very satisfying. It helps tether you to your place and fosters an affection for your patch of land. I guess this is what starts to develop those attachments to place which bind you to home. Welsh has a word for this –  “hiraeth” – it is similar to  the German “heimat” , but has more  a sense of yearning to be where you belong.DSC_3187

These connections are not truly innate, they arise from being in close proximity to a place over a period of time. They come from working with that area’s nature and getting to know it as it changes throughout the year. It is the sinking of roots into a patch of land so that you feel unsettled when you are not at home. This can occur in the town or the country, a village or the city but it depends on constancy of place and its people. As our lives are much more mobile now;  our working lives often takes us from place to place, and our families likewise can be moving and dispersed over wide areas, for many of us it is difficult to generate this feeling. This is unfortunate as I feel that this connection is also part of the emotion which binds us to our communities. This is the part of the jigsaw that was missing when I worked in the city, this was the bit of me that I felt was lost which drove me to leave.

I have never regretted that decision. Yes, I often feel like a fool and out of my depth when I try to grapple with new problems. But facing problems and dealing with them is what makes life enjoyable. Routine, while comforting, needs to be broken every now and then to keep us on our toes. Having to learn new ideas and skills keeps the challenge that we need to keep our spirits up. I stated at the start that when we started small holding we learnt by copying. However, to tell the truth there was one time when we were in the vanguard and leading from the front.  Once, when we thought we might have been trendsetters or to have possibly discovered a new farming technique.

One of our elderly ewes had to be helped when she delivered her lambs. This  was exciting as it was the first time that we had to actually pull a stuck lamb from its mother. Everything that we had read and watched worked as it should and we felt quite smug after having successfully delivered healthy lambs. However, our relief that we managed to do this was quickly tempered by the ewe developing a uterine infection. After a course of penicillin she recovered but lost her entire fleece and was completely bald. We did not know what to do, we feared she’d be cold and come to harm.DSC_0791.JPG

We found an old dog coat, in fetching blue, which we kept on her by bands of duct tape which gave a dashing belted effect. We thought we had done very well and she looked quite handsome. She recovered fully which she would have done anyway, apparently. Local farmers later told us that this was a recognised side-effect of antibiotics and will sort itself out. We watched as the farmers  drove past our field, we noticed as they shook their heads and wondered if they were nodding sagely and thinking “what a wise and fashionable idea, why didn’t we think of it ?” or whether they were convulsing with laughter thinking “what are those idiots up to now ?“. I tend to think that latter was more likely as I haven’t noticed a sudden profusion of colourfully dressed sheep in our local fields.

The loss of a friend.

The loss of a friend.

My relationship with one of my neighbours is broken and I am not sure how, or if, I can fix it. We have lived on adjacent properties for many years and had always had cordial relations until a few years ago when ‘Rammy’ died.

Rammy was our, not very imaginatively named,  Welsh Mountain Ram. He was the first ram we had and over his life we had grown very attached to him. Each autumn he paid attention to the ladies in our flock and ensure the following spring we had new lambs. He was protective of his harem but he was never belligerent with us. He would see off any dogs or strangers who came into his realm and could be quite impressive as his 80kg ran at full pelt towards a foe. However, with us, all we had to do was to make a pretend gun, by pointing two straight fingers at him, and say “bang bang” and he’s stop running and keep his distance. During the annual tasks of shearing or dosing he would give-in gracefully, after only a token fight, and I was always certain that had he been determined to escape my clutches he could have done so. In short he was a gentle giant of whom we were very fond.

Unfortunately one autumn there was a minor accident. Our neighbour left the gate to our sheep field open and the ram and some sheep left the field to wander the lanes. The neighbour noticed what he had done and was able to herd the sheep, who had not ventured far, back through the gate and into the field. He left the ram in the lane. He did not think to tell us about this and we only discovered that Rammy had gone on a walk in the early evening when we did the routine head count and noted him absent. We frantically started searching and our neighbour told us, in a blasé fashion, what had occurred and that Rammy was last seen heading down the lane towards town.

We found him fairly quickly. He had gone into an adjacent farm’s field and was content having found himself surrounded by about 200 ewes ready for mating. He must have felt that he had discovered paradise, everywhere he looked there were nubile and receptive ewes admiring him. We tried to lure him home but the prospect of a bucket of nuts was no match for the sea of pheromones and plaintive calls of the seductive ewes that surrounded him. It was dusk and darkness was falling rapidly. We contacted the farmer who owned the flock that he was visiting and told him of our dilemma. We agreed that it was too late to separate him tonight, as darkness had fallen,  but that we would meet at dawn the following day with his shepherd and both our sheepdogs to round up all the sheep and pull him out. The worry about our ram, and the embarrassment that we were causing a major task for our neighbour at a busy time of year, meant we had a fitful and sleepless night.

At dawn’s light we all met at the gate to the field. We could not see Rammy and we joked he might be sleeping off a night of unexpected passion. We entered the field with the dogs and started to prepare to gather everybody together. As we crested a hill, to gain a vantage point to plan our strategy, we saw in the distance a large white body. It was clear Rammy was lying dead. When we got closer there were marks on his face and bleeding which confirmed what had happened. He had entered a field where there were two large texel rams who were planned to service the ewes. When Rammy met these two he met his match and he had died in the fight with them.

This was all an unfortunate accident, there was no malice on anyone’s part. Leaving a gate open is an easy mistake. Failing to notify us  that the ram was out is perhaps more annoying as, had we known earlier, then we may have been able to catch him before he entered the neighbouring field and the outcome may have been very different. But it is still a minor fault. So these issues are hardly grounds for the relationship with my neighbour to have broken down. I could have made the same mistakes, I recognise this.

The problem I have is that he has never apologised for this event nor recognised how much a loss this was. I am sure he saw the ram as just another item of stock, annoying to be lost but easily replaced. He probably does not realise, as he does not keep animals, how attached one becomes to them. I don’t want restitution. In all honesty he was not worth a great deal of money, he was no pedigree star. I know we can’t turn back the clock but the lack of an apology is always in my mind whenever we meet.

We never discuss what happened, it never comes up in conversation. There is now an awkward silence on the matter. Hence, an apology will never be forthcoming. I fear that without an apology then I can’t then forgive. Without this pair of ‘apologising and forgiving’ I fear that I can’t forget and it is this memory that has broken our relationship.  But perhaps some things once broken can never truly be mended and there will always be some form of scar.

 

 

Coron drogennod

Coron drogennod

Whatever the cause of the climate change we are witnessing it is very clear that over the last decade our seasons have altered. One clear aspect is that, here on the west, it is generally wetter and possibility warmer (though there seems also to be more variability in temperature than before). While this may not be to the benefit of farmers and growers, without altering crops and patterns of management, it is not a disadvantage to everyone. This weather favours some of the insect life which has been much more prolific.

As it is warmer the winters are not as cold, and it seems not cold enough, to kill off the flies and larva as usual. Over the past years we have seen flies in the air right through the winter period and it has felt very strange in December or January to see them still flying about. It was for this reason that we have been much more concerned about fly-strike and our sheep and the reason I was collecting everyone yesterday for their medication. The season where one could expect fly-strike or head fly is now much longer than before.

This is a considerable source of worry. Fly strike, or maggots, is an awful thing to happen to sheep. They are literally eaten alive by maggots. The common risk factors are warm humid weather which favours the flies and the sheep having some scouring (diarrhoea) often associated with the spring grass. The flies lay their eggs on the skin and they hatch out into maggots which then eat the animal causing holes in the flesh which become infected. This process can be extremely fast, a sheep can become seriously ill, and even die, within a day of a fly laying its eggs. It is for this reason that government guidance, and good advice, is to check your sheep daily so as to catch this problem before it becomes severe.

Last year we had a lamb who got maggots in her tail. It first I thought it was just a swelling or bruise on her tail but when I caught her and examined it I was horrified to find maggots. As I parted the cut on her tail it is no exaggeration to say that hundreds of maggots tumbled out. It was like a scene in a David Cronenberg horror film. I debrided the area then cleaned it with antiseptic spray and gave her a shot of long acting antibiotic. I then covered the wound with Stockholm Tar. This is tar made from pine wood (also called archangel tar). It is a thick, black sticky paste which covers an area acting as a flexible and antiseptic bandage. It also had a wonderful medicinal smell. We kept her in the barn for two days during which time she had extra rations to give her strength. Thankfully following this, and much to my surprise, she recovered fully and even regrew hair on that area of her tail eventually.

Another group of insects who enjoy, and benefit from, this warmer wetter weather are the ticks. These arachnids have been getting more of a problem year on year. Though I am aware that, through Lyme Disease and other illnesses, ticks can cause problems for humans, I am more concerned about their effects on animals. The dogs and cats come in most days now with ticks in their fur and now our evenings start with the ceremony of de-ticking and trying to rid the pets of their unwelcome visitors.

My attention to this increase in ticks was piqued this morning when out on my regular ‘Walk rather than die of diabetes and obesity‘ walk this morning. I had slowed down to talk to a neighbour in the lane. Then we both noticed something rather odd. It seemed to be a mouse wearing a hat or tiara.

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Coron Drogennod

On closer inspection we found out it was a crowd of ticks on its head like some tortuous crown. About 8 or so hard bodied ticks were sucking and engorged on its head. We dislodged the ticks and liberated the mouse to go on its way. I thought I had done my good deed for the day but later read up about ticks and mice. Mice are common hosts to ticks and indeed are a major vector for tick based illness. However, a long scientific study, conducted over 16 years, has found that ticks are really not that damaging to mice for some reason. Indeed, male mice with high tick burdens live longer than males carrying less ticks !

I am sure the mouse was glad to see the back of its bloodsucking visitors and it did serve to remind me to check the animals tonight and to keep checking the sheep.

The joy of bucket training.

It never fails to amaze me the effect that simple changes can have in leading to results much greater than one would ever have anticipated. I recall when we started with sheep and were the proud owners of a very small flock. We bought five ewes and a ram (who, after much thoughtful deliberation by my wife, was named ‘rammy’) and would wake and look out of the window with pride as we watched them roam our fields happily grazing.

This idyll was soon broken when we discovered that we had a part to play in this rural bargain – they provide the meat and wool, we provide the medical care and feeding. The problem was that to provide the care and attention meant rounding them up and gathering them into a pen so that we could give vaccinations or medication to them. We know this might be a bit difficult so we deferred the task until we could organise some reinforcements and we invited friends to come an help us.

On the first attempt we went out en masse. There were four of us, all reasonably fit, and with 9 university degrees between us, we were going to outwit these animals in short order.  It took us four hours of running, jumping and swearing till we got the first half corralled and a further three to get the others. The sheep outran us at every turn, they dodged our cunning barricades, out-thought our sneaky plans and obviously knew what we intended and were not going to play ball. The only true success we had that first afternoon was to be a valuable source of entertainment for our neighbours who stopped their work to enjoy the spectacle of the ovine victory.

That evening, as we sat dejected and tired,we seriously reconsidered our plans : perhaps we could become vegetarian, we were sure we could outrun a potato and outwit a carrot (Well fairly sure). If we had to have this struggle every time we needed to do anything with the sheep we really did not think we were up to it.

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Object of Desire

Summer and Autumn came and went and we had dreadfully ineffective days when we dosed each sheep one at a time or sheared them over a few weeks. Things did not get better. Then winter arrived and we started to feed them to help them through the lean months. They soon learnt that we were a source of hay and even more importantly a source of ‘sheep nuts’. Once they saw the bucket they knew what it contained and they changed entirely.

 

 

 

As I filled the bucket from a large metal food bin the lid of the bin would rattle. The sheep, about 1/4 of a mile away would hear this jangling and would bleat to let me know that they knew food was on the way. By the time I had walked to the gate they would be already assembled and waiting for their breakfast. They were now “bucket trained” – and like all good bucket trained sheep they would go wherever the bucket went (mainly). The joy of being able to move the sheep from field to field simply by walking with the bucket, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a line of obedient and eager sheep in tow, was exhilarating. Movement was now a joy rather than a cursed task but there was still a niggling problem. We could now get them to follow us around but we still could not get them to go into a corral. They were still too wise for that, and they guessed that we were up to no good when they saw a corral erected from hurdles in the field. We needed more help.

We needed somebody smarter,

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Cadi

someone quicker, and someone with more stamina. All our education felt us totally unprepared for sheep wrangling, we needed an expert. Fortunately we found her in a neighbouring farm. Cadi, the sheepdog, was bought for the princely sum of £75 and put to training. She knew instinctively what to do and after a few lessons with a local shepherd he, and Cadi, had us licked into shape. Cadi could outrun and outwit even the fleetest and sharpest ewe. Between the bucket and Cadi we can now gather everyone together and have them corralled in about quarter of an hour and life is again sweet.

 

I was thinking about this today because we needed to give the sheep ‘pour-on’ and ‘drench’ to protect them from flies and flukes. The warm wet weather we have had recently makes this a major risk. Until a few years ago this was a nightmarish task, I would have difficulty sleeping for nights before as I tried to think out stratagems to outwit the sheep. This time we got up, got the bucket and the dog and did the work. It was a sunny morning and I am glad to say that some neighbours passed by and watched us manage the dosing without a single expletive. Some even commented that they had not got round to doing their sheep yet. We will never become famous shepherds but we are happy to be looked on as competent

As time goes on we continue to learn and get better at some things.  Sometimes it is the small things in life, like a bucket and a dog, which make the biggest difference. The important thing is to persevere. You may not believe it at the time but, even in later life, it is possible to master new skills and learn new knowledge. The danger is to abandon the challenge and to miss the opportunity of learning just what you are capable of doing. I could easily have done that four years ago and be speaking as a animal-less, vegetarian. It is hard now to imagine life without the sheep, and especially without Cadi.

 

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We heard the bucket so we thought we had better be ready at the gate.

 

 

 

I am no stranger to killing.

I am very unsettled by an event which occurred last night. I was driving home following a birthday party for one of the grandchildren. It had been a successful day, the party had run smoothly, the children and been well behaved and it had been a pleasant day seeing all of my children together on the one day. Something that rarely happens now except at occasions such as parties or funerals. The journey home had been long but largely uneventful and, after 5 hours in the car, I was nearing home. It had turned dark and I was now driving in the narrow roads of the countryside.

As I turned a bend it was clear that something was happening on the road ahead. There were flashing amber warning lights on my side of the road and on the other carriageway there was a line of headlights. I thought there has been an accident and there is now a queue in the road. I slowed down to stop and pulled in behind the stationary car. As I did so I saw something in the middle of the road. This was clearly causing the blockage as there were a group of people clustered around and obviously concerned. Worried in an accident someone may have been knocked down I got out of the car as quickly as I could to see if my medical skills were going to be required.

What I saw was a terrible sight. On her back, in the middle of the road, was a welsh mountain ewe of about 4 years old. She was clearly badly injured and distressed. In the middle of the throng of people she was trying to make her escape but no matter how much she flailed with her single back leg she could not help herself. Her other rear leg was misplaced and broken. She had an expression of terror and pain as she writhed on the carriageway illuminated by the headlights of the stopped cars. Silent as she waved her leg trying to get purchase in the air and escape from the crowd who surrounded her jabbering and shouting.

Nobody had approached her and I went forward to check her injuries and to move her from the road into the side. As I neared and leant down I saw that her abdomen had burst open and her stomachs and intestines were strewn on the road and underneath her. She had lost a lot of blood but was still conscious. As I examined her further it was clear that she had massive injuries from which she would not recover. I started to notice that the jumble of voices I could hear were a group of young men, with eastern European accents,  shouting “kill it, kill it”. They like me knew that the ewe had no hope of survival but was unfortunately conscious and suffering.

I had only seconds to make a decision. I needed to euthanize the sheep there and then. I needed to swallow any reservations I might have had and needed to end this ewe’s suffering, but I  had nothing to hand to make this an easy task. Nor did anyone in the crowd. I saw a dry stone wall, and saw that within it there was a large boulder which might be loose. With a strength I don’t normally possess I managed to pull the boulder out and carry it to the ewe – with one movement – the sheep was dead. I was able then to move her body off the road and leave the man, who had collided with her, on the phone to the police to report the accident.

Now I am no stranger to killing, as a smallholder, I have to dispatch stock when the time is right. However, when I have to do this (and it is never an easy task), I have the knowledge that the animal has had a good life and will not suffer during the process. I rear them for this end  and see it as part of the circle of life. At times I think that the death that we serve to our stock is better than the death that I can expect myself. It occurs without warning or expectation  and without pain or suffering. I fear when my turn comes it is likely to be with an awareness of the imminent end and after a period of suffering, slightly prolonged by (what finally prove to be) futile medical interventions.

But this ewe’s death unnerved me. She did suffer. It was pointless and ignoble, there was no part of it which was positive. Her body will be discarded as waste. Sheep are flock animals but she spent her last minutes alone, away from her flock, under the glare of lights and amid the hubbub of strange noises. Some were complaining that she was “just there in the middle of the road” as if she had broken the highway code and it was her fault. She had been doing what sheep do; walking slowly looking for greenery to eat. We were doing what people do; driving fast, trying to get somewhere else as quickly as possible. In the countryside we have to coexist and manage to live together. Sheep can’t stop being sheep but can stop being the idiots who don’t think about them.

 

 

 

A day of blood and guts.

A day of blood and guts.

Today has gone to plan and has been, as hoped, a day of blood and guts. We dealt with the lungs, heart and livers yesterday and the big shock of the day was eating the billy goat’s liver. I had anticipated that this would be very strong tasting and was slightly worried that it might be malodourous, as I had heard that the smell of billy goats can carry through into the meat. I am glad to say there was no odour whatsoever and, more importantly the liver tasted lovely. We had it pan fried with some onions and only a minimum of seasoning with salt and pepper. It was mild in flavour, rather like lambs liver, and not at all as strong as beef or pig liver.

Today continued with the management of the offal. In the morning we coated the skins again with salt. We have about 10kg of salt over the skins and it is drawing all the fluid out of the skins as brine. They are lying on inclined hurdles so that the brine drips off onto the gulley in the middle of the barn’s floor. At the moment the skins only need a little work each day to top up the salt but after_20180118_200316.JPG the weekend they will start to demand a lot more of our attention and work. The major tasks for the day were the finish off the lungs, make the blood tofu an deal with the tripes.

The lungs had been in the dehydrator overnight and now were well complexly dry and ready to be packed. We vacuum seal these and they last well in the refrigerator. We have found that, doing this, they will keep for at least a year. Our dogs are still enjoying the treats that we prepared last year.

The next task was to clean the stomachs. DSC_2679 (2)To do this it is necessary to cut away the spleen and intestines from the sheeps’ stomachs. Sheep have four stomachs and these will be full of grass in various stages of digestion. This needs to be washed out. We have found that standing in the stream with a sharp knife or scissors if the easiest way to do this. Mind you, however you do this job it is not glamourous.

We have found that sheep tripe is not as good as that DSC07289from cows but we know two who think it is the greatest thing in the world – our dogs. They are very enthusiastic for tripe as can be seen in their rapt attention as I cut it into strips. We then add this to the scrap (old and bendy) carrots we have left over at the end of the year. We boil the carrots and mince them with the tripe to make dog food. (We mince them so the dogs can’t eat around the carrots like children – eating the tripe and leaving the vegetables).

The last job for the day was to make the blood_20180118_200549.JPG “tofu” or “curds”. The blood which we collected had clotted and we cut the clot into lumps with a sharp knife.  These lumps are then put in salted boiled water and they harden. We don’t add anything to make the equivalent of black pudding or blood sausage. This was partly due to lack of planning as we didn’t have oatmeal or seasoning to hand. Next year we hope to do this. The way we have prepared them this time, they are rather bland tasting.  I can see why they are  often used in broths which themselves have a lot of  flavour. In a broth like this the curds bring protein and vitamins to the meal rather than any particular taste.

We had visitors while we were busy this afternoon. The kitchen unfortunately looked a little like a charnel house with tripes on the table and blood being boiled on the stove. I had the feeling as they sat there that they felt that it might be easier just to go to the supermarket. However, as we talked and remembered the meals of our youth they remembered that meat is a precious thing. It is best seen as a special part of the meal a treat not something commonplace.  We remembered meals, like neck of lamb, pork belly or cheeks, which were eaten when we were young because they were the cheaper. They were the bits of meat that people didn’t want to buy and our mothers used these cheaper cuts, or offal,  in recipes to eke out their budget. Unfortunately the methods of cooking using these cuts has been gradually forgotten and this amnesia causes us to miss many excellent dishes. Try and buy mutton now, you will have difficulty. However, it is true to say that most farmers will tell you mutton is superior in taste to lamb but it has fallen out of fashion. If you get the opportunity to try it you should take it, you will be pleasantly surprised.