Thursday, 20 January 2011

Maybe clouds are hard to move too

The mist is sitting low over the fields.  Just outside the barn, a sort of digger-tractor thing is looming like a mechanical monster, yellow against the muted greens and browns.  I’m in the barn, sinking slowly into a dark mush of sheep poo and dirty straw, the smell of ammonia in my nose.   I’ve got a sheep sat between my legs.  The sheep is damp and the wetness is seeping through my overalls, through my jeans and working its way into my wellies.  The sheep is a Poll Dorset, a full grown Poll Dorset ewe can weigh in at thirteen stone.  I’ve no idea how much this one weighs but she is full grown, in lamb and most of her weight is resting against the inside of my left leg. 

That was a few weeks ago.  What was I doing straddling a damp sheep?  I was helping with dagging out, catching and turning the sheep then passing them to the shearer.  Dagging out means removing the wool from the tail and rear end of the sheep.  Sheep use their tails as toilet paper, they can get really mucky, also these ladies are due to have their lambs in a couple of months.  It will make things more hygienic and accessible at lambing time if the sheep are dagged.  Once they have lambed, the lamb can find the teats more easily if there isn’t a load of wool in the way.  Dagging sheep is terrifying,  Female sheep keep a collection of pink fleshy protrusions under their tails which you need to shear very close to, the blades seem far too big for such delicate work.  I don’t do any dagging this time, I just catch the sheep and leave the real work to the expert.

To turn a sheep, you put your thumb through its mouth to get control of the head - sheep have a gap in their teeth, like a horse – then you get hold of the back end with the other hand, turn the sheep’s head against its flank (this is a natural position) and pull down the rear.  Getting a bit of a swing going can help.  Unfortunately, last summer I swung a sheep with rather too much enthusiasm, injured my shoulder and displaced the radius bone in my elbow.  Ouch.  The sheep usually goes down and you can lift the shoulders up and lean the sheep on your legs.  Sheep have a great philosophy on life – if you find yourself in a situation you can do nothing about, do nothing, there’s no point wasting energy in futile struggling.  Therefore once all four feet are off the ground most sheep will not struggle.  However, the second they get so much as a toe on the ground, the pen or someone’s ankle, they’re off.  I’ve been caught out so many times, thinking isn’t it lovely, my sheep is so relaxed and happy with me, then I move slightly, a foot comes in contact with the ground and I find myself flat on my back on the shearing board, the sheep gone.

The Poll Dorsets are large and heavy but slow, they see my coming, look a bit worried then surrender without a fight.  The Kerry Hill tegs are a different story.  A teg is a teenage sheep, last year’s lamb.  These Kerry Hills are small and agile, with attitude.  They are also martial arts experts.  When I try to turn the first one, she does a double back flip and punches me in the face with both front feet.  A minor exaggeration.  In reality, instead of collapsing on the floor as a sheep is meant to, she rises up on her hind legs so I am standing straight up hugging a vertical sheep with her back to me and her face level with mine.  How that happened I have no idea.  The only redeeming factor is her lightness, I am able to lift the Kerry Hill right off her feet and rearrange her into a more congenial position.

I didn’t attempt to turn the rams.  Rams have extremely muscular necks and I can’t handle them, they just don’t bend.  The Kerry Hill ram starts to bite the shearer’s ribs as he is having his bits defuzzed.   He struggles so much he nearly escapes and as I rush in to help restrain him, I forget about the shears and end up with a row of puncture marks across the back of my hand.  It’s a hazardous job. 

Whoever came up with the description of sheep as clouds on legs has never struggled with the physicality of a ten, twelve or thirteen stone sheep.  I was muttering about the inappropriateness of the description as we chased the woolly customers around the barn when the shearer said, ‘Perhaps clouds are hard to move too.’  If anyone has ever rounded up a group of clouds (what’s the collective noun for clouds?  Surely not flock?)  driven them through a narrow gateway and got the gate shut before they all turned around and floated back out, then please let me know.  I’d be very interested to hear from you.

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