Sunday, 6 May 2012

It's Showtime

It has been raining for three straight weeks now. I haven’t been exposed to sunshine for so long that I think I’m in danger of getting rickets. I’m living in my rubber dungarees and swapping to a drier fleece top only when I have to wring out the sleeves like they were sodden dishcloths. So when the local sheep farmer offered me a chance to come and wash sheep in preparation for a show I thought “Well, I can hardly get any wetter.” and jumped at the opportunity.

Sheep are about the greasiest creatures you can imagine, which is great when you want a water-resistant sweater to wear, but hard work when you’re trying to clean one. There’s no science to it: simply fill a bucket with water and soap and get scrubbing. It was oddly therapeutic work – enjoyable even. Sheep are peaceable companions.

Once the half dozen sheep were scrubbed clean we put them back into the sheep wash for a final rinse in mud. Mud? It seemed counter-intuitive to me, too. A 25 kilo sack of field soil is tipped into the sheep wash to dye the now grease-free but white sheep the colour of their local soil type. I assume it's one of those traditional things best accepted without question.

Sheep are excellent swimmers, and appear to be naturally buoyant, popping straight up every time the farmer dunked them under with his brush.

See? Everyone's rocking the Rubber Trouser look. Accessorised here with bailing twine belt.

As my mother always said "It hurts to look beautiful" Or in this case, it takes a lungful of water to get to show standard.

I apologise for the lack of photos to accompany the whole process. I'm really there to help not document, and even taking these couple of photos elicited a sideways glance of bemusement from the farmer. He'd already shown remarkable patience towards his chattering, enthusiastic amateur sheep washer. In the few hours it took to complete the task, I watched him handling sheep, using equipment I knew nothing about, and handling his shepherding dog. I did my best to take in his thoughtful, complex responses to my simplistic questions.  With a collection of prime sheep to compare and contrast, he showed me how to feel for width and depth in the loins, and what constitutes a good head. I'm doing my best to watch and learn, but it’s a steep curve and much will simply take time and experience to master. Check back with me in 25 years.

Sadly, a day spent washing sheep has done nothing to dissuade me from my plan to show my own sheep at a local show. In fact I’ve already asked if I can come back and watch the farmer trim the sheep’s fleece, which is done to enhance or conceal, and present a pleasing overall shape.  So far I can only do one style of sheep haircut, and I don’t think there’s a show category for Most Naked Sheep.

While the sheep seem impervious to the weather, our laying pheasants aren’t fairing as well. We provide them shelters and cut greenery as windbreaks, but their usually green pens have turned to mud. I’m struggling to find the eggs because they’re laid in puddles deep enough to cover them.

This evening Mike found a hen that was hypothermic in one of the pens, laying on her side near death. We started up the tractor and put the heat on in the cab, and left the hen in there to dry off and warm up. When she was revived, Mike took pity on her and set her free. I think it was a symbolic gesture, to try and alleviate the guilt he feels that his laying flock is subject to the elements. (This courtesy doesn’t extend to his wife, who is subject to the elements just the same, but never excused from egg collecting duties!)

We've taken two hatches out of the machines, both very successful in spite of incubator breakdowns. Most of the chicks are already out of the shell when we open the machines -

Of course, there are always the late arrivals which need a helping hand. 

Each time I removed that shell from over a chick's eye, and it sees the world for the first time, I feel amazed. Elated to bring life into the world.

I don't enjoy the other end of the process so much. By far the worst chore this week was taking Meaty and foster lamb to Ice Camp. Meaty’s name seems to be ironic; although he weighed 31 kilos it appears 20 of those kilos is fat. I butchered him and restocked our freezers.

No points for spotting the glass of wine.

Foster lamb is much less fatty, and the best lamb carcase I've produced yet. He’s been sold, and will hang another day or two before I butcher him. That’s two lambs down, and three to go. Later. When I’ve recovered from this trip to the abattoir. I still take a Valium to help me cope with that trip, but a glass of wine is enough to get me through the butchery. I think that's progress, don't you?

Under surveillance


Poppy Cottage said...


Wondered how you were 'enjoying' this fantastic (for ducks) weather.

Hope to see you soon.

C x

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

My bubonic material envy continues. Who gets to post a picture of a sheep in a sheep wash? But I wish you had gotten an answer to the question of the rationale behind getting the sheep dirty again as soon as you finish getting them clean. I mean, I understand getting dirty as soon as you get clean -- we do it around here all the time, but not on purpose.

Also, love the pheasant hatching!

megan said...

dakota! Having a shepherdy dog myself, it made me surprisingly happy to see dakota at the end of this post.

Allison said...

That video was amazing. Why is it that you need to help them hatch? Was it too tired or exhausted to do it themselves? Is there a time limit they have to break free on their own?