Thursday, 30 June 2011

Sheep-for-brains

It's a confusing time of year for me. And busy. Confusing and busy. During the day I'm checking lambs, sheep, horses, and pheasant poults, trying to keep them alive and healthy. But in the evenings, I'm out with a gun doing my best to take down vermin, and harvest wild animals for the freezer. I'm a competing member of the food chain, fighting foxes to save my chickens (one took Barbara the Weather Chicken!) and stalking deer to save us from going hungry.

I should say harvesting wild animals for the freezers, plural, as we have two - both of which are only a quarter full. We've nearly eaten all our home grown chickens, lots of venison, most of last year's game birds, plus half a pig I got from Peggy in exchange for helping her in the butchery.

Summer shouldn't be the hungry season, but the main crops of vegetables aren't ready to harvest yet. After a hot dry spring, we're being subjected to a cold grey summer. My hardy root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips and carrots are stalwart growers. My squash, french beans, and sweetcorn are sulking in their rows.

Last winter's lambs are going to the abattoir next week. I have one ram lamb destined for our freezer and the other two are sold to neighbours. I just got my all-clear from Trading Standards to sell our lamb and chickens direct (Milkweed Farm Meat) so I can now supply any surplus meat to local families and businesses. I'm a quasi-CSA of one.

Assuming I have any meat to sell by next week. I have had to bring a pair of wire cutters on my sheep checking rounds. One of the ram lambs keeps getting his fat head wedged in the wire fencing. I've found him stuck fast, dejected and hungry, for the last three mornings in a row. Did he learn his lesson this morning?

Winning at grazing

Nope. Apparently the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. At least until you eat everything in reach, get stuck, and have to wait for someone to cut the wire and free your head.

Eunice keeps him company, or stands there and mocks him, I'm not sure which.

It's become a daily thing with him. Even the neighbors have started helping to free him when they find him before I do.

I also lost my first sheep since starting the flock. The smallest orphan lamb died in his first week, probably from urolithiasis. I was very upset at the loss, though sheep farmers tell me that rearing all one's orphans successfully is rare. The other four are past the crucial two week period and I'm hopeful for them.

Though the youngest lambs aren't gifted with brains either. There are 5 teats on the bucket but the lambs insist on fighting over two. They have a system worked out, something between a time-share and a dance routine:

video


Lest you think it's just the sheep, the stupidity is contagious and crossing species. I broke my small toe falling over the vacuum cleaner. It means I've had to walk with a stick for a few days, but chores wait for no man.

Chore number one: an order for freshly shot rabbits. Mike drove the truck; Underkeeper Pete and I stood in the back (me balancing on my good foot) Within an hour we shot a dozen rabbits (and two foxes for good measure).

Freshly shot rabbit on a bed of wet pheasant pellets, with a garnish of empty cartridge cases, served in a flatbed truck

The order came from a British Army officer taking his cadets on a Survival Training Weekend. I understand each cadet gets given a dead, un-gutted rabbit and told not to starve before being left overnight in the woods. I feel sorry for the cadets. If this is their first time catching a whiff of rabbit guts, they may lose their appetites completely.

Chore number two: load up the ram and return him to Mr. Baker, which we did without mishap or injury. For a change. Ram L815 had an easy-going temperament, which I hope he passes on to his offspring. All our sheep are covered, and due to lamb in September. I'm told the ram is getting a week off, before being delivered to another farm for two more months of libidinous activity.

Chore number three: Clear stragglers out of the laying pens. The pheasants we penned in order to collect their eggs were released a few weeks ago. There are always a few that make their way back, and once inside can never remember how to get out.

We don't want them to starve, or be killed by predators (who also find their way into the pens) so I put the dogs to work. They check each pen, and catch any pheasants hiding behind laying shelters, or tucked up in corners. I have to pick the soft-mouthed dogs, or there wouldn't be anything worth releasing by the time the dogs retrieved it. Here's Pip and Spud in action:

video

That's Ian, our wonderful work experience lad, helping out. There were 36 of these pens to be checked, and with two energetic retrievers, it didn't take us long.

Chores four and five are still outstanding: Take Alan to the vets for an x-ray of his feet, and harvest some of the deer that are eating a newly planted cider orchard, one tree at a time. I will leave those for the next post, which I promise will be less rambling.

I wish I could teach one of the dogs to retrieve my train of thought.

12 comments:

  1. Oh Jen, the video of the lambs feeding and fighting over the two teats is priceless! I was hooting with laughter... thanks :)

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  2. PS I'm sorry to hear about the demise of Barbara.

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  3. Pretty impressed with the videos!!! Lovely to see Pip and Spud. Jasper is soon to be the very happy owner of a lovely black bitch pup. I have begged,well asked really nicely if I can baby sit!! I can't wait!! Hope your toe is better soon xx

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  4. maybe it's hard-wired - sheep have two teats, the bucket equals One Mama Ewe, therefore, there can only possibly be two teats. The others don't exist. I wonder if they would split up if you had two teat pails, each with two nipples. Fascinating sheep science experiments.

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  5. From Jen@M&T, (technical problems commenting)

    Maria - We all miss Barbara. She went down on a sneaky clutch of eggs and the fox found her before I did.

    PC - I saw the puppy photos! I know where you can find a pheasant or two for training..

    Megan - I like your thinking! I made the same 'two teat hypothesis' and of course began experimenting: swapped teats (they unscrew...!!), moved the bucket to the opposite side, hung the bucket on the fence. They still fixate on two teats, though it could be because there is usually another lamb already suckling, and they get into a panicked feeding frenzy.

    If I had 6 orphans, I wonder if they would share 3 teats. That's next year's experiment sorted then.

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  6. I know you think this post was rambling, but I really enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to the day when my dog has an actual job like Pip and Spud instead of just digging up rocks from the riverbed.

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  7. We are all animals, some are smarter than others regardless of type or race. I have seen sheep rolling over a cattle grid to get out of a paddock. How smart is that.
    I am an ex west sussex lad. When I was a kid & my Father wanted me to help him with something, he would often say "two sheeps heads are better than one". I was never quite sure how to take that!
    Regards.
    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

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  8. I have to tell you that from the first picture of the ram lamb stuck in the fence, I thought to myself, so that's what Pan looks like from behind. And the lamb feeding video was pretty amusing, probably made more so by your commentary.

    I am also sorry to hear about Barbara's trip to the big coop in the sky. Sorry about your toe, too!

    Mend fast!

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  9. hungry gap? grow spinach!

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  10. Sorry to hear about Barbara.

    Hearing about your order from the army reminds me of a picnic when I was about 10. My family were picnicking in the New Forest with my grandparents when two soldiers approached, which my brothers and I thought was very exciting. (The may have been cadets- they were in khaki, which was close enough for me!)They were very apologetic, but explained that they were on a survival course and had been given white rabbits to prep and eat. I think their main issue was that they looked like pets. I'd assumed they were live, but it was a while ago...
    Anyway, they said if we had any leftovers would we mind leaving them and they'd come back for them when we'd gone. My dad being my dad invited them to join and I had lunch with 2 soldiers, which made me very popular at school on Monday morning!
    I wonder if ingenuity was enough for them to pass the course...

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  11. From Jen@M&T again (still having problems..)

    SimpleSavvy - Oh digging rocks is a favorite pastime for our bunch too. As long as it makes them happy,eh?

    Le Loup - I think your right that sheep have an almost savant knowledge when they want something. In my limited experience, that's usually to escape to a neighbor's field and eat his much nicer-looking grass.

    Small flocks and herds seem to show more intellegence and less 'herd mentality'. Therr's an interesting book on the subject called the Secret Life of Cows' by Rosemary ??(forget surname)

    Paula - Thanks for your sympathy (hope your finger is healing also!). I harbor half a hope that Barbara will return to the garden one morning trailing a string of chicks.

    Marianne - I have some lettuces but have run out of planting room. I have more seeds than space, my hopes are always bigger than my garden. I should try to find a corner and plant a few spinach.

    Hazel - That's a great story! So it's a tradition here then? Making great soldiers, one dead rabbit at a time.

    It's a semi-regular order that we fill, though I would have thought the trick to survival was procuring the animal yourself, in the first instance.

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  12. Barbara the Weather Chicken?! I am very sorry to hear it. Silly, I know, but I felt like I knew her.

    That's a fine, fine flatbed of rabbits you've got there. They look bigger and fatter than our local rabbits, which are so scrawny that I haven't pursued rabbit hunting.

    I suspect it's not really the case, but I picture M&T positively overrun with wildlife, dinner out there just for the taking. All you have to do is stick your head through the fence ...

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