Animal Husbandry Blues

This property came with three sheep.  We weren’t very good at negotiating; we wanted the ride-on lawnmower.  However.  For a few months all they did was inch their way around the paddock like barrels on legs and lie down when eating had tired them out.  We decided they’d be more use as chops and sausages so Josh brought home the courtesy cage trailer from the butcher and the next morning we put on our Swannies and gumboots and went out to invite them to hop into it.

Well, for three months we’d never seen any of them move faster than one hoof a century but do you know how FAST those things can go when they feel the need?  They have turbo-boost.  They feint, they zigzag, they commando roll over fences and they weigh a tonne.

After an hour or so of doing hopeful things with bits of fencing wire and yelling ‘Get in behind!’ at the kids we gave up.  I just knew that on top of every neighbouring hill real farmers were rolling on the ground laughing at the clueless townies slipping in the mud chasing sheep.  Josh took the empty trailer back and I finally got round to taking the kids to school where I did the sensible thing and asked around until I found a man with a dog.  He came down one morning a few days later and got the job done so embarrassingly fast that we seriously considered trading in one of the kids for a Huntaway cross.

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Our next foray into sheep was in spring when we decided it was pet lamb time.  We acquired two, one of which promptly died.  Josh maintains that it was because of the shame of its neo-nazi name (Whitey) but I think it was because I had the wrong teat size on the bottle and it couldn’t drink properly.  Either way, it certainly wasn’t the last.  Lambs are a bit of a dodgy proposition.  A friend told me the story of her little boy whose first two lambs had died, so when the third came along she always sent him out to check that it was still a going concern before heating up the bottle.  On this occasion the wee boy had to answer the call of nature while he was in the paddock.  He pulled his shorts down and hoisted out his penis. The lamb, very much alive and hungry, saw what looked like a bottle teat and…you get the picture.

As I recall this one did not make it to Ag Day.

As I recall this one did not make it to Ag Day.

For the first few years we got orphan lambs from a generous local farmer for the kids to train and take to Ag Day.  These were pets and Josh has never let me have any of them butchered even though once they’re weaned and in the paddock the kids more or less forget about them and wouldn’t notice a few less.  This has been proven on more than one occasion when grown sheep have dropped dead (it turns out that you do need to drench them every so often) and Josh has buried them in the bottom paddock, known as the Pet Cemetery, without the kids being any the wiser.  Sheep all look the same so they just assume they can see their personal favourite whenever they glance over the fence.

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A few times I broached the idea of breeding our own lambs and having all-you-can-eat roasts with mint jelly on a more regular basis.  Josh, whose only experience of the birthing process has been several frantic hospital dashes and occasional ensuing drama with me, could not have been less in favour.  No matter how much I tried to explain that it’s all a lot less traumatic with sheep – for one thing if it all goes horribly wrong you can just shoot them, which wasn’t really on the table as an option with me – he couldn’t get beyond the memories of doctors in freezing-works white gumboots sloshing around in blood on the floor.

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Luckily, as I have told him many times over the years (‘But you wanted to die last time! You couldn’t sit for two weeks! Why on earth would you choose to do that again?’), humans and other animals continue to exist because despite everyone who’s experienced birth in any capacity having a healthy terror of it, mother nature wins out every time.  In our case it came in the form of the neighbour’s ram getting his enormous bulk through two perfectly good fences to join the young ladies on our side.  It took me a few days to notice – like I say, all sheep look the same – and that was all he needed.

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Five months later we had triplets.  We made it clear from the time we realised the ewe was pregnant that these animals were for eating.  Daniel took note and didn’t name any of them but nobody else listened.  We had two ewes, Lambie and Stardust (named by the two-year-old girl and the ten-year-old girl respectively, can you tell?) and a tiny ram.  Josh heard Amy talk about Stardust and, free associating, said ‘Ziggy’.  Noah misheard and named the ram Zurby, and Zurby he remains.

If that's not a 'why me?' expression then I don't know what is.

‘Triplets? Awesome!’

And that’s where it gets complicated.  Who to keep?  Who to eat?  Who to keep but on a separate property (rams can start from an early age and have no qualms about getting friendly with their mother or sisters)?  Who’s old enough to lamb safely?  How many can we feed on the grass we have?  How to work it out so we can have lambs every year but without getting the genetics all in a tangle?  Some say you can’t inbreed sheep at all.  Some, including a friend who’s bred sheep for years, say it’s fine, and her husband’s a vet so you’d hope he’d know.  Some say the first generation’s fine and it’s after that that you need to keep an eye out for two heads, five legs or Prince Charles ears.  And of course if we’re not really careful the sheepy pheromones take charge and we have no say at all in who gets duffed up by whom.

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By now we had three generations of sheep, some related and some not, and it was doing my head in.  I needed a spreadsheet.  A spreadsheep, perhaps.  There was Socks, Noah’s champion ewe from the previous season and the mother of the triplets, old enough to breed from and too old to be eaten as lamb.  There were Pixie and Frodo, old enough to breed from in the coming season but also excellent candidates for a spot of mint sauce.  There was the large and incredibly useless Sparkles, neither ewe nor ram  – a prime candidate for the freezer except for Josh’s bleeding-heart liberal city-boy attitude toward eating pets.  There were Lambie and Stardust, useful for breeding from but not this season, and Zurby, our one ram with intact manhood.  And there were Sugar and Clover who we acquired along the way, useful for breeding from if we waited long enough because they came from a completely separate gene pool but quite tasty-looking in the much nearer future.

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The neighbour’s ram, father of the triplets, had made the mistake of stomping on the neighbour’s daughter and had paid the ultimate price.  The other next-door has a young male but he was fathered by the same ram as our triplets (those fences are no impediment, I tell you) so he wasn’t a contender for impregnating Lambie or Stardust, which left Zurby as the only virile male around.  Zurby, though, is a close relative of Lambie, Stardust and Socks.  You can see why it was all giving me a headache.  Really the issue was that I wanted to breed my sheep and eat them too.

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Then the drought made the choice easier.  It’s lucky that sheep can survive on almost nothing because that’s exactly what we had to feed them.  They turn their noses up at hay and food scraps but they love sheep nuts with a passion bordering on scary.  Because I’m the one who brings the sheep nuts they also love me and it all got a bit Alfred Hitchcock for a while there.  If they caught a glimpse of me anywhere on the property the whole nine of them would start yelling and hurtling to the corner of the fence closest to where I was.  Going into the paddock for any reason caused a stampede and going in with sheep nuts was always a near-death experience.  After several weeks of having my feet stomped on and my person assaulted I was over it entirely.  I had also worked out that free meat is a lot less free if you have to keep shelling out for sheep nuts.  So I told Josh to bring home the cage trailer again and – thanks this time to the magical combination of sheep-nut addiction and really, really dumb animals – we loaded the youngest four ewes on just as quick as a flash.  And then we ate them.

Lambs to the slaughter. Woohoo!

Lambs to the slaughter. Woohoo!

I donated Socks to the neighbour because if she has triplets again there’ll be one pet each for his three little girls, and I threw in the stupendously useless Sparkles to keep her company.  This neighbour had been baby-sitting Zurby to avoid under-age or incestuous relationships on our place and he had them all in the same paddock for a while even though I told him to keep Zurby away from his mother, so I guess we’ll find out who’s right on the inbreeding thing.  When the rain finally came and the grass started to grow I brought Zurby home and put him in with the two remaining ewes, and do you know what he did?

Nothing.  He did nothing.  He just followed them round at a distance, ate, and did – nothing.  Usually when a ram is in the paddock you can tell there’s a ram in the paddock.  Zurby has cojones so big they almost drag along the ground but was he using them?  No.  It was Will and Grace, not Romeo and Juliet.  After all my careful planning I was seeing no lamb chops in our future.  There aren’t any other rams around and it’s already way late for mating because of the drought.

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Josh and Paul take the ‘How hard can it be?’ approach to shearing…

...and some are less happy than others with the result.

…and some are less happy than others with the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then last night I was pulling the curtains and I watched Zurby wander up behind one of the girls, think about it for a minute, and hop on.  I tell you, I have never been so relieved to witness sheep-shagging.  I suppose we still don’t know yet whether all, some or none of the sheep are reproductively viable but at least Zurby has worked out what his oversized equipment is for.  We gave him nice grass and two virgins all to himself.  If that doesn’t do it I don’t know what will.

 

 In memory of Peter Veen, who enjoyed my blog enough to tell his friends about it even though he disapproved of the way I feed my children and lambs on unpasteurised milk.  

Go in peace.

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