Patricia and I were talking ... somehow my 10 months of living as a shepherd some years ago came up. Lots of stories, I bet, said Patricia. Oh yes, and I told her a few. Like the one of the ewe clearly in labour for hours and no baby yet. So I went and read up on all the lamb mid-wifery I could find; then scrubbed my arms up to the armpits all the while praying that when I got back to the ewe her lamb would be there. And so he was. I called him Goliath, he was huge.
We chatted a little more and then, next thing I knew, I'm up for talking on 18 Dec, about sheep, and my friend Lorna and others will be singing 4 sheep to the wind. So here I am, it's a bit scary; it's been work preparing this, thinking about what happened and how best to express it. My time with the sheep was very special. Lorna asked, ``how did the experience change you? Did it?'' My first reaction was a clear NO - but since then I've thought about this. And perhaps it did. Perhaps I wouldn't be standing here now, trying to tell you about it.
I'm not a farmer, nor had much experience with animals other than dogs, cats, rabbits and hamsters. But I love gardening and most critters. I have always liked sheep, and barns, and chickens, and often thought I'd like to take one of those farm vacations. And I have friends who had a little farm, with some 28 ewes and a ram. I often spent time there, helping with some of the chores. So when my friends were planning an extended absence, and looking for someone to live there and tend sheep, and barn and house, I volunteered. My marriage had ended round about then, that was a radical - though not sudden - change, and a year in the country, with totally different responsibilities, seemed a great idea.
All was agreed; I had some training in setting up birthing pens by tying gates together, I learned how to catch a sheep to give it an injection (they can run fast and are hard to hold), how to inject a lamb, how to put the nasty little elastic on its tail which made the tail fall off in a few days (this is for hygienic purposes), stuff like that. My friends themselves had started with very little farming knowledge - but, of course, they started with 3 ewes and here I would be with 28. Most of them would be pregnant and then there'd be many many births, often twins!
Some of my friends told me I was crazy, others thought I was very brave. I felt neither crazy nor brave (I feel more brave standing here now). I was scared, of course, - it was a big responsibility, but I also knew I was extremely lucky to have this opportunity.
And it was wonderful. I moved out in September. One of the first things I did was to build a little chicken coop in a corner of the barn, with three laying boxes and a little ramp. I love chickens and eggs. Then I got three young hens from a friend, and three not so young ones a little later from a farmer. The first little pullet egg was miraculous! And delicious! I loved, I still love, finding a fresh egg - if it's still warm, what a treat - and holding its wonderfully reassuring delicate oval roundness.
My dog loved the chickens too, and one of them would play with her. The vet, at one visit, said I should video-tape this because he had never seen a chicken \& a dog playing. Katie, my yellow lab, was a special kind of beast! And wonderful company that year and for the fourteen in total that we lived together.
However, it's sheep I'm supposed to talk about. 28 eyes, 27 Lancashires not much good for meat, but excellent for wool, a lot of them black - well, grey, brown and beige. Black sheep go grey at a very early age - and one Suffolk and her child a Suffolk/Lancashire cross. Only the Suffolks would chase my dog, they are more forward, all the other ewes kept a careful distance. Except when the lambs came - then Katie was an excellent midwife's assistant. She would lick them clean, especially when it was a twin birth and the mama was busily either nursing or licking the other lamb. And by lambing time (Feb/Mar) the dog had been around so much that the sheep were used to her smell and accepted her.
There was lots of work. The sheep were still outside during the day in fall. That meant water had to be carried out to them. In the evening they'd drink from the bathtub in the barn. Hay had to be chucked down from the loft and distributed in the feeding troughs. They were also fed grain, and I had to close the barn doors while putting it into the grain troughs, otherwise I'd be trampled! One ewe got what's called bloating, the vet came - I do not remember what he did - she then had to be kept separate from the others and fed some special stuff - molasses was part of the mix - and when she died I was heartbroken. All that special attention had bonded me to her. She'd gotten more beautiful, her eyes - sheep have the most amazing rectangular pupils - so expressive and sad! I did the best I could, perhaps a more experienced hand could have saved her! But I had been told not to worry. That some loss was expected. My friends said that they had lost many more lambs in their early farming days, and I should expect to lose some also. And I did. Sometimes perhaps I got there a little late - when lambing began in earnest I would go to the barn every four hours at night to check on things - and I did get better and better at spotting a ewe in labour. Then this mama would have to be brought into one of the lambing pens, and then she could be watched more carefully. The first lamb was a single birth, a girl, and I named her Hope.
There was quite a number of twin births. I only had to help once with the delivery. The first lamb had arrived, but the ewe was clearly still in labour, yet nothing was happening. I don't remember how long I waited, but finally put my fingers in - hooked the little feet and brought them forward and out - the whole baby following. I sat there and bawled, looking at `my' two beautiful black lambs, Romus and Remulus. I named them all - criminal in a way - since they, especially the boys, would become meat before they grew up completely.
The barn was such a warm and cozy space, especially at night with fairly dim light, those comforting chewing sounds, the rustle of hay, and I'll never forget the little clicking sounds each ewe would make for her baby/babies, and those babies would bah in return. Invariably each mama would know her babies, and all of the lambs would recognize the clicks of their mothers. The ewes only make this sound while they have lambs. Lambs, of course, are the very cutest things on earth, black or white - and another lovely thing about them is the wild tail wagging that starts as soon as they've latched on to mama and start drinking.
The ram was left out of this activity, of course, and kept in a separate pen. I have two special memories of him. One was when he was starting to seduce a ewe. It was a very gentle approach, he scratched the ground lightly with one hoof - no bull-like stamping the ground - and made some low sounds, sniffed her rear end, and also scratched her back with a hoof. I was impressed with this tender beginning.
The other time was when I came out into the pasture one rainy morning with an open umbrella. All the sheep were upset, they began wheeling in a circle, the lambs in the middle, and the ram approached me in a very serious manner, head down, ready to charge and defend his women. I quickly folded up my umbrella and everyone relaxed again. I assume it was my completely altered shape that upset them. I must have become a giant-headed monster.
Christmas on the farm was wonderful. I remember the starry winter sky, so much brighter in the country, and the beautifully bright moon. Coming home, the long driveway would sparkle with newly fallen snow. It was good, going to the barn last thing before bed, crunching snow underfoot, bright stars above or snow falling. Doing the shepherd thing, especially that year, brought solace and hope.
I know many friends came to visit during that time, my children were there for the holidays, I worked in town several days a week, I went swimming, walking, it's a beautiful part of the world - but the sheep are the strongest memory; I can still evoke the feeling I had when entering the barn, smelling their warmth, the manure, the hay, checking my ladies - I got kind of possessive about them all - recognizing quite a few of them. I felt responsible in a serious way, I also felt competent and fulfilled, there was a connectedness to the land and the animals, and I looked at personal worries from a different perspective. Then I was all set to buy a house in the country, get myself a couple of chickens and ewes - I never wanted to live in town again. However, I left the farm and went back to town and my life became more what it had been. Still, there are times now when I go to the barn - in my head - and find a kind of comfort that I can find nowhere else.