It was the long, brown curls that hung in front of his eyes that captured my heart. From the moment I first saw Hugh Ferring-Wittingstale on River Cottage years ago, I was totally in love. So when Hugh moved to the country and fell in love with his beloved Dorset sheep… well, I did too.
I remember watching him that first season on his television show as he was painfully learning the farm lessons that so many of us do. His cow was open. His ewes were wild. I loved it – maybe I wasn't alone in this world after all! I remember specifically watching his neighbor come over one night when a ewe was lambing. She helped deliver the distressed lamb and then quickly rubbed hay on it's nose and swung it in circles by it's back legs to get it breathing. Hugh looked terrified – you could tell he loved and cared for his ewe and her struggling baby.
I completely fell in love with sheep that moment.
Had I ever had them? No. Been around them? A teeny bit. But I knew I loved them. I think deep about stuff like that.
A few years back, I happily stocked our fields with a few breeding ewes and a ram from a friend of mine. Hamish, Rosie, and Eleanor were the very beginning of our Katahdin sheep herd and I was elated to have them grazing the fields. Eleanor was a bottle lamb and spent many mornings curled up in my lap drinking Sal's milk. Sounds romantic, doesn't it?
But friends. My friends. You've always been able to count on me to be honest – have you not? And you've grown to know that I continually fail in all my attempts at least a dozen times before I experience any sort of success – no?
Sheep, y'all. Sheep.
I friggin' love them. And Lawdy, do I absolutely hate them.
I appreciate that sheep are silent most of they day, apart from a few gentle bleets when the hay is being delivered for breakfast (unlike the geese who tend to verbally assault me all day). Their shape… their structure… their demeanor… their femininity… their regolness. I fall in love with them more every day.
But I'll be danged if they are not the stupidest animal I've ever encountered. Y'all. The sheep saga is REAL. I've heard it said that sheep are the one animal on the farm that seem to actively seek out ways to die. And frankly, it's the truth. Sheep – oh beautiful sheep – why must you be so difficult?!
I think our sheep survival rate is roughly 50%. Terrible, terrible odds. Our young ram, Guido, was butchered last year – he was beautiful and delicious. We brought in 3 more young rams this past spring for a larger harvest – one was attacked by a small predator and failed to recover. Another broke into the chicken coop and ate their grain, only to bloat and die a day later. One of our new breeding ewes ran off and got herself killed only God knows how. Our little lamb Pocket died after his first time Mama went mental. And just this morning, we went out to find our main man Hamish had also been attacked by a predator – what was most likely a stray dog (we've noticed him on our property recently) or coyote.
I'm sure Hamish was protecting his 3 pregnant ladies, which I am very thankful for. This big boy, while limping and slightly damaged, can take a punch. He's rough and tough and amazing. Love that ram.
In an effort to bandage and treat his wounds, as well as treat him with a pain medication and antibiotics, we knew we'd need to herd the sheep into the old milking parlor so that we could keep them in closer quarters. They were roaming a 2 acre parcel of snow land and honestly, it's pretty dang hard to chase sheep around steep mountainous terrain. They have incredible agility, balance, and stamina. I, being six months pregnant, do not.
The problem began with 8″ of fresh new snow. Coupled with the snow we've already received this year, that meant I was up to my knees in powder. Which is, ahem, super easy to walk in. Especially with coveralls and winter boots. But farming doesn't care if there is snow, and Hamish certainly needed to be treated, so we had no choice. Stu and I bundled up, brought Toby in to help, and began herding the sheep towards the parlor.
Sheep are stupid. Sheep run fast. Sheep run you over. Sheep don't care if you poke them with your shephard's crook – they just stand there in the snow and stare at you with their little beady eyes and laugh and mock you. Especially Eleanor. Because she's so comfortable with us, she doesn't have the typical ‘flight zone' that you can count on with herd animals. At one point, I sat on her back like a horse to keep her from moving back into the pasture because I was so winded. She didn't even care – she just calmly looked back at me and kept eating her hay. Sheep are heavy, too. Like, cement blocks. Best you can do is grab a tuft of their wool as they whiz by you.
I cursed more times than I care to admit while we were moving those stupid sheep. The super steep hills we were climbing up, the snow, the disobedient animals, the whole sha-bang, man. It was just epic. It was one of those farm moments when you question what the hell it is you're doing.
Sort of like the other night when I noticed the gigantic bellies on one of our ewes, Noel. When did her belly get sooooo big? Did it ‘drop'? Do sheep ‘drop' before they lamb? Could she be ready to lamb already? Why wasn't she eating? Why was she holding her tail up like that? I couldn't really see her teats with all the snow and wool… I stared and stared and finally decided we should check her, just to be safe.
After all, it was 2 degrees. 2 DEGREES. If she had a lamb outside, even in a shelter, the chances of survival were low.
So we put the littles to bed, bundled up, and went out into the pitch black to check her.
We tried desperately to check her without having to rope her, but after 30 minutes of trying, we were freezing and ready to get on with it. I'm not the best roper in the world, but I can throw a rope. That is, when I'm not wearing ski gloves and when it's not 2 degrees and when it's not pitch black (besides the head lamp Stu was wearing). Did I mention there was 2 feet of snow?! And we were on a steep hill? Recipe for magic, baby!
I did eventually catch her head, after a few missed throws and a lot of trudging around in the snow chasing a herd of stupid sheep. Stu flipped her on her side and I began inspecting her belly… her teats… her girly bits.
I squeezed her teats. Nothin'. That's a good sign.
She looked gooey. Was she gooey? Yes, definitely gooey.
I checked internally for feet. Nothin'. Good! No feet meant no imminent births during the winter from hell.
… but then I realized the moment I was in and I began to laugh out loud in the silence and stillness of the night. Here I sat, six months pregnant, wrapped up like a sausage in all my snow clothes, in the pitch black, single digit temperatures, with my fingers up a sheep's business and a rope around my shoulders.
Oh sheep. What am I to do with your beautiful, ridiculous ways.
I love you. And sometimes I hate you. But I mostly love you.
Oh the torment!