Monday, May 24, 2010

The end of the road

There comes a time in every sheep's life when they start the downward spiral. For some loss of teeth is an issue, preventing them from eating properly and therefore losing condition in harsh weather or when grazing is scarce. For some, latent disease finally catches up with them and they are unable to fight off colds, footrot and other infections. For some their problem is just getting too old and the resultant internal organ failure.

A sheep with liver failure is like a drunken sheep and for the same reasons. They circle, get lost, are confused, don't eat and don't keep up with the younger, fitter, more sober flock members still dancing, joking and laughing. Spending all their time looking for their keys, a taxi and the nearest open takeaway shop means they don't do all the normal sheepy things and in the wild they would be eaten by predators; in this area the fox thugs that lurk in the bracken alleys. In the nice, domesticated, sheep estate field they just lose the ability to think, see and walk and they slowly die.

Many of the forlorn sheep carcases you see left out in remote paddocks are the result of this slow and - rather frightening for a sheep - natural death. Unfortunately before we knew enough about it we had two of our old pets die this way, the two original coloured sheep the love of whom started the whole shebang. We were there at the end for both and they had the shelter and warmth of a shed lined with hay but we could have done better for them, nonetheless.

So it was that over the last several weeks, with the weather getting colder and the nights longer, we observed some of our very old ewes heading in the same direction and decided to spare them the rough journey. They did have a journey, albeit a very short one, but within the hour of being yarded with their comrades they were grazing in the great pasture in the sky.

Now most of the time when we try conduct some sort of business-like farming practice as amateur smallholders every obstacle known to man is thrown in our path. Or so it seems. The simplest plan has concertina folds that open to reveal as yet untried difficulties, unforeseen problems and just plain unbelievably bad luck.

So it was with a complete lack of bouyancy that we set about our pre-dawn routine for taking sheep to our local abbatoir, although blessedly only 4 minutes drive away. The sheep trotted meekly into the temporary yards we had set up for the purpose, then quietly stood watching whilst the usual numerous attempts were made to back the trailer into the right place. Their conduct was a bit unnerving in itself, as if they knew what was happening. We also wondered why they were being so well behaved. The natural state of things made a resurgence when Diana tried to jump out of the trailer, Esmerelda kicked SO and Florence flatly refused to move, lying down in the middle of the tiny drafting gate, but these minor protestations dealt with, they were at last on their way.

The little abbatoir was busy with autumn small farmers' stock and it's always interesting to see how everyone marks their sheep. Some had ice-cream container lids hung round their necks with baling twine, and the instructions marked on these. Some had the usual ear-tags, a few quite decorated with several in different colours. Some had giant ribbons or scraps of coloured cloth tied round them and some, like ours, were simply marked with stock paint.

There were two yards full ahead of ours - which constitutes the whole holding capacity of this tiny enterprise, so they were put in the loading yard. Then another chap rocked up with his woolly load. At this point karma for our kindness actually presented itself for once, and the nice man orchestrating the show let our old ewes go in ahead of everyone elses to clear the loading yard.

So our dear old ewes did not have to wait at all, and it was all over before breakfast. Vale Esmerelda, Diana and Florence.