Sheep-Farmer-art - 7/21/17
"On Being a Sheep Farmer" by HE Dame Jennet MacLachlan of Loch Fyne.
This article was added to this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium, with the permission of the author.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was first published in the Myrtleholt Leaflette.
On Being a Sheep Farmer
by HE Dame Jennet MacLachlan of Loch Fyne
Chapter 1: How It All Began
Was I always a sheep farmer? That is a very good question to ask me. You see, I was born and raised in South Africa. South Africa is primarily a lamb-meat eating country so yes, I was raised eating lamb, not beef. That isn’t what made me a sheep farmer. I think it was simply a matter of circumstance. Here is the story of my life in as condensed a format, as I am able to make of 60 years.
I was born in a little town in the Orange Free State of South Africa, called Vereeniging. Shortly after my birth, my parents moved to a little town outside of Johannesburg, called Springs. The first thing I remember very clearly was learning my address. Of course this was so that I knew where to be delivered to, should I ever have gotten lost. To this day I remember that address and can rattle it off ... 46 Becker Street, Castledale, Springs.... You see, it is ingrained into my memory for the rest of my days.
The thing I remember most about that house is that there were incredible fruit trees in the yard and it was a corner lot. Why do I remember that? Because I was a very bad eater as a child and was therefore very thin. Because of the nature of life in South Africa, all our windows were barred with wrought iron security bars. The problem, or rather the benefit, was that I was so thin that I could pass through the "burglar bars" with great ease and regularly did. Encouraged by my brother, Bevis, and my sister, Marilyn, I would regularly slip through the bars and go pick fruit to bring back to them. Bevis is three years older than I am and Marilyn is 18 months older than I am; I am the youngest of the three children. It is not that we did not get enough food or anything like that. It is simply that my siblings loved fruit and excitement. So, I regularly complied.
How does this all relate to sheep, you may ask. Well, when I reached 5 years of age, my father got really ill. He had a duodenal ulcer that went really badly. He landed up in an ICU fighting for his life for many months. As a result, my mom had to sell 46 Becker Street, Castledale, Springs to pay for my father’s medical bills. This was a very difficult time in life for my mom.
In order to cope with having no house and needing to provide for three young children, my mom went to see the Catholic boarding school nuns to ask for help. It came to pass that I was sent to a Catholic boarding school at the age of 5. I won’t lie, I hated it. I missed my home and my daddy very, very much. But even at that ripe old age I understood that my daddy was very sick and that this was the only thing that my mom could do while she went to live in a travel trailer in the back yard of my aunt’s property.
Over the next couple of years, Dad slowly got better and Mom and Dad got back on their feet. However, having your three kids cared for full time in a boarding school is rather convenient when you have to work full time; boarding school became our lives.
The school calendar in South Africa is very different from that of America. There are four distinct "terms". Each lasts three months long with a small break at the end of the three months and a two week long break for Christmas. This is all very convenient, but what do you do with your children when there is no school and you have to work? That is what farming aunts and uncles are for.
We went to the farm for vacations. That is where all my farming experience began. We were expected to carry our weight; helping with the sheep, the cows and the chickens as well as picking oranges was all part of the education and upkeep cost. This is where my fascination with farming all began. I have good memories of those days, as well as a few bad ones.
Being chased by the family English bullmastiff is not fun. Bingo did not like me and I did not like him one little bit. We finally parted ways when I was seven years old and he decided to try crushing my head in his mouth. Yes, he bit me. His lower teeth caught my nose, lip and chin and his upper teeth dug into my temple...I still bear the scars of the stitches I had to have to close the wounds.
We were standing in the kitchen talking to my aunt; Dad next to me, and my sister on the other side of me. Mom and my brother were next in line. My aunt was cooking at the big farm stove and Bingo was under the table opposite us. My aunt was talking to my dad and I was looking at her. Bingo got up from under the table and stretched lazily and then came straight at my face. Unprovoked and unexpected. He then let go and bounded out over the top of the open double dutch door into the farm yard.
I remember screams and people flying in all directions as I stood there peering through one bloody eye, wondering just what had happened. Bingo got to bite one more child after me before he had to be "terminated". That child was a little African boy who was running across the yard. Bingo had become an attack dog and was dangerous.
My dad, in his infinite wisdom, went straight out and bought a mastiff puppy. To this day I love dogs more than anything and could not imagine my life without at least one running around. As a matter of fact, I have four. I have no fear of dogs despite my experience and honestly believe there is no such thing as a bad dog, only bad dog owners. Yes, my aunt was to blame. You see my aunt, and namesake, could not have any children; Bingo was her child. The problem was that as the youngest child coming to the farm, I became a threat to Bingo. He was jealous of me.
Life went on and I grew up. I graduated from school and then university, and gradually found myself in America. I had gotten a computer science and mathematics degree in America and was now in another country altogether. I had married an American and with two sons, lived in the Bay Area of California. I was working in the Silicon Valley computer industry and life was moving very fast for me. After seven years in the computer world, my life got way too stressful and I had developed TMJ and a twitching eye. I was, literally, having to drink my food because my jaw hurt so much. It was clearly time for a change in lifestyle. The stresses of Silicon Valley had taken its toll on my health. It was time for a change.
My husband and I bought a farm in the southern reaches of Oregon. No stress, just hundreds of rose bushes and land and wide open space. It was and still is a beautiful place. But, one cannot go from being absolutely crazy-busy to a life of doing nothing...so along came the animals. At first it was only two old ewes and a ram. Shortly after, I bought my husband seven lambs to join his old ewes and our lives as sheep farmers started from there. This is the first chapter in a book on our lives as Sheep Farmers in the southern reaches of rural Oregon, the story that brought us to where we are today and the fun facts that we have learnt along the way.
Chapter 2: Lambs Don’t Fly
There is something very exciting about new life.
The first birth of a lamb was quite the experience since it was an assisted birth. One would think nature could simply take care of things but sometimes a ewe that is too young to give birth is covered by a ram and, well, the lamb simply has to be born. This is all very exciting and somewhat simple if things go according to plan. So what was the plan that we had come up with before the birth of the first spring lambs?
We had divided the main shed into cordoned off sections that we dubbed our birthing pens. One would think that a mother who has just gone through hours of labor and pain and has produced a lamb would automatically know that she has given birth and has offspring. Well, that is not the way things go in the sheep shed. First of all, if the mother is a first timer, she invariably does not register that she has given birth. If you are not quick enough and catch her at it or shortly thereafter, so that you can identify her by the afterbirth...well, you will be in trouble. Now if two moms simultaneously give birth, well, same problem.
I don’t know if I have mentioned that sheep have very, very small brains for their body size. Consequently, they are not very smart at all. You have to be quick and make sure that the new mom is aware that she has given birth and usually we will place the mom and the new born lamb into a birthing pen together until they "get to know each other". Once the mom has the smell of her lamb, you are in much better shape. Good luck recognizing who owns which lamb if you do not spot them quickly enough! And, if you place a lamb with a mom and she does not think it is hers, even if it is, that poor lamb is in for a hard time and will probably die of starvation.
Our first spring lambs arrived well before we were ready for them. The weather was miserable and cold and the moms started giving birth out in the field. So much for our great plan of birthing pens! At night when the remainder of the sheep came into their barn for the night...all hell broke loose. We had had two moms give birth. One mom knew she had had a lamb and was obviously not a first timer. She had cleaned the lamb and was staying out in the field with her lamb. There was no way she was coming indoors without that lamb. The second mom, however, had totally forgotten that she had given birth and had rushed on into the shed for her evening meal totally abandoning her lamb out in the field. The second now-abandoned lamb had simply teetered over to the other mom and lamb and was causing all sorts of confusion. So out we went to render assistance.
Lambs are not very heavy so it seemed a simple action to pick it up and carry it to the barn, and the mom should follow, right? Wrong. Hence our title of this chapter "Lambs don’t fly". You see, once you pick up a lamb at human carrying height, which is well above the eye-level of the mom...hence that lamb is now flying and is no longer in mom’s visual range - so it has gone. If it flies for too long, mom forgets that she has a lamb. Yes, really. So, you have to carry said lamb at mom’s level. This means that you are walking bent over at the waist in a very unnatural position for a 5-foot-somewhat-inch human to walk. It kills your back and you have a very wriggly, squirming lamb in your hands who is bleating like crazy while the mom runs around in circles trying to locate where said bleating is coming from.
In the meantime, the second lamb is trying to follow her newly adopted mom, who will have nothing to do with her because she does not smell right and is butting her in the wrong direction. Add to all of this that you have to act quickly and make sure that the lamb you are carrying is not too close to your body because you do not want said lamb to absorb any smell from you. If your smell gets onto the lamb, mom will no longer recognize it.
Once you get all the lambs and moms into the shed, the fun part of identifying the second mom begins. We put the lambs into the birthing pens and if only they would stay put, life would be so simple. But no, the lambs are bleating for their moms and the moms are all responding, even those who have not yet given birth. So, the lambs keep running back out of the pens and you cannot close the gate or the "real" mom cannot get in to the pen with her lamb. All this, of course, has to happen while mom is trying to grab as much feed in her mouth as she can before all the other ewes eat it, all while trying to identify which lamb is hers.
It took us a while to get this entire process down but we got better over the years of identifying when a mom was going into labor so that we could hopefully get her into a birthing pen before the lamb put in its appearance - barring that we have gotten better at making sure we can identify who is about to give birth as opposed to those who have just given birth. There is a lot to learn and we learnt it the hard way. The most important lesson was "lambs don’t fly".
Chapter 3: Predators Don’t Walk Backward
Over time we began to realize the necessity for separating sheep. There were those who were simply too young to breed. There were the neutered males who were being allowed to grow for their ultimate consumption; these are what we call "locker lambs". Then there were the old girls who just really needed to be put in a safe place so that they could live out their final years without being forced to breed by some invading ram from the next field over. The time had come to build a new shed a good distance away from the main shed, and so building planning commenced on the shed we would lovingly dub "The Nunnery".
A new shed was designed to be storage as well as housing. The doors would open out to the grazing field and the feed troughs would separate the main living area from the hay storage area. The design was beautiful and full of thought, or that was our impression. The shed was built and grass hay was brought in to stock the shed. Everything looked really good. The next step was to bring in the selected livestock for our "nunnery". We proceeded up the runway to the main shed and started sorting sheep. We had had the foresight to build a raceway, which is a narrow pathway that you send all the sheep through with a swivel gate on the end. As the sheep advance on the gate it is turned left or right to sort the sheep into the adjoining areas and thus get the ones that you need to move, while the others return to their original field. With the sheep all sorted we started herding them down the runway to the new shed.
Everything was working really well until the evening when the sheep needed to come into the shed. You see, all our sheep are brought in at night to feed and to be protected from any outdoor predators, of which there are many. We went out to bring in the sheep and feed them and though some of them were confused and stood at the field gate waiting to be let into their old shed, the others started to get a clue. We have a trick that we use to entice them. In the evenings they get their grass hay as well as one bucket of "AllPro" which is a mixture of molasses, cobb and other nutrients. The sheep love this stuff and we jokingly call it the "sheep crack."
As soon as the sheep see the bucket they come running.
With all the sorted sheep now in the shed happily eating their dinner, it was time to shut the main barn door. Here is where the problems started. In order to shut the main barn door, one has to go into the main shed area, walk amongst the sheep until you reach the door and close it. The problem here being that the sheep get really freaked out when you walk amongst them and start to run back out the barn door. What one ewe does, all ewes do....and out runs everyone. What a problem this was. You cannot sneak up on a herd of sheep to close the door. We had a real predicament on our hands.
After a few evenings of jumping over the outer fence and going to close the door from the other side, we realized that we simply had to make another plan. Then suddenly one evening, while my husband and I were having a conversation while feeding said animals, he was walking backwards because he was talking to me. The sheep never stirred, but continued to eat their food from the feed troughs unperturbed by him. He reached the barn door and closed it without any issues. We were flabbergasted. What was different?
We thought about the events and the following evening tried the same thing and again, no problem closing the door. Then it suddenly dawned on us that in fact the solution was right in front of us and the logic was obvious...Predators do not walk backwards. Because we were not looking at the sheep when we walked backwards to the barn door, we were no longer any threat to them. When predators attack them, they definitely are facing them, not walking away from them. Finally, we had found our solution.
Fortunately, the newer sheep coming into the shed have now learnt from the older ones that we are not a threat when we walk through to close the door and we no longer have to walk backwards amongst them to do so. The only problem we now have, and which we have not yet solved is that if anyone else, like maybe guests to the ranch, want to help with the feeds we go right back to being predators. As soon as they see other humans accompanying us into the shed, mass panic occurs. So, until we have solved the new issue, visitors are encouraged to view them from afar and not enter the shed at evening feeding times. This seems to be the best solution for now and until we find another, will have to remain the rules. No visiting at feed/bed time. Day time visits are encouraged.
Chapter 4: When Sheep or Lambs Get Stuck
Birthing time in the sheep shed is a very interesting and wonderful time for us in the spring. We have just survived the birth of 24 spring lambs, and we are not done. Watching the arrival of a new lamb is exciting and educating at the same time. Assisting in the birth of a new lamb, or two, is even more exciting. However, birthing, as in any species, has its problems.
Nature sometimes struggles a little bit. This chapter is dedicated to some of the stories around "getting stuck" and all the implications of that expression.
Let us start with the mother ewe. As we all know, "The grass is always greener on the other side." Sheep are no different in this view of life’s good grasses. Many, many a day I have had to walk out into a field to free a ewe that has decided that the grass was greener on the other side. The sheep force their heads through the wire field fencing and keep shoving until they can reach as far as possible to get at that last little blade of grass because it simply has to be better than what is right under their feet. The problem is when they decide to bring their heads back. Since their ears, and their ear tags, can move backwards when proceeding through the fence, this is no problem. The problem is that ears, and subsequently the ear tags, cannot bend forward and their heads are too big to come back through the fence. They get stuck.
This is all well and good, and one would think that simply holding their ears down and pushing their heads back through the fence would be the solution, right? Wrong. The instinct of a sheep is to push against whatever decides to push against their heads. So you have this stupid ewe fighting you all the way and forcing her head against you while you are trying to push her head back into the right side of the fence. At this point, she has gone back and forth so much that her wool is now wrapped around the fence and she is "locked" into place. I have had bruises on my hands and arms from trying to free up a stuck ewe from the fence.
At times I have been so frustrated with them that I have honestly thought to myself, "Just leave her there… She’ll figure it out." No, she won’t. One year we actually lost a ewe because she could not free herself and she died right there, stuck in the fence. The only thing that saved her baby until we found her was that he could still suckle on her and get his food until she stopped producing milk a few hours later. Dumb sheep. That was one of the most frustrating moments for us. We now regularly check even the farthest reaches of the fenced fields just to be sure that never happens again.
And, just as grown sheep get stuck, so do lambs. From the moment of their arrival, or attempted arrival, into this world, they get themselves stuck. Let me start by explaining a very interesting technique that I learnt about five years ago, quite by chance. We have a very useful book called Sheep Farming for Dummies. It just so happens that my husband was doing research on illnesses and problems during birthing and had left this book open on my kitchen table. I was walking by and noticed a rather strange title to one of the chapters. That title was, "Swinging a Lamb." I decided to stop for a moment and read what on earth this was all about.
The book proceeded to explain that sometimes during a traumatic birthing, a lamb might not start breathing. In order to help that lamb you had to remove any excess fluid from its lungs so that it could start breathing. The way this is done is by grabbing the hind legs in one hand and holding on for dear life, and I really mean holding on because these little tykes are very slippery at this stage. You swing the lamb at your arm’s length in a full circle, making sure that you do not hit the ground or the walls or anything in the near vicinity. Well, there was a diagram and I looked at that and was totally intrigued and somewhat horrified by this whole description.
About a week later, on my husband’s birthday, I got to put this into practice. My husband was on the phone being wished well for his birthday by a family member. Since I was on morning duty for feeding the livestock, I went out to start my chores. I started my rounds at the "nunnery." This is the shed where the neutered males and the females who are either too young or too old to be bred are kept to keep them away from the rams.
I approached the shed with my usual enthusiasm and when I walked inside, I noticed that one ewe was lying down against the shed exterior door. I proceeded to feed all the others and then walked through the gate and past all the eating sheep; she was still lying against the shed door. I proceeded to open the door and she still did not move. Now this is a sure sign that something is very, very wrong. On closer inspection, I noticed that there was a half of a head of a lamb protruding from her and she was in severe distress. The rather large head was blue and extremely swollen and the ewe appeared to be lame.
I tried calling home, but of course the phone was busy. The next best thing was to call for help from my father who lives in his own house on the same property about 200 yards away. He arrived a couple of minutes later and informed me that, sure enough, the lamb was stuck. How on earth she was even expecting a lamb was beyond us since there were supposed to be no males anywhere near here and she was far too young to be getting pregnant.
"You will have to help her," my father said. "You mean pull out the lamb?" I asked, horrified. Yes, he said that that was exactly what he meant. So, I proceeded to do as I was told. As luck would have it, I managed to free the lamb from the poor ewe and relieve her agony only to have this horribly swollen lamb in my hands. "You have to swing her, Jannie," my dad said.
Ooooh, oooh, I know how to do that....so putting all my newly acquired knowledge into practice, I very tightly held onto the little legs and swung with all my might. To my utter amazement, the lamb started to breathe. He looked like Quasimodo from all the swelling but he actually survived. I had managed to save this little life and his mother, too. I was so proud of myself and looked at my dad for his approval. "I wondered if that would work," he said. "I have only ever heard of it and never seen it before." What? The reality was my father had never even done that and was totally shocked that I had not only known what to do and how to do it, but that I had actually succeeded. What an adrenalin rush I suffered after that!
Now we step forward about three years later for a story that still to this day embarrasses my husband and will probably make him mad that I am telling this tale.
My son had started working for us and it was once again lambing season. We had a lot of very difficult births that year and all of our lambs seemed to be way too big for their moms. It turns out we had a ram that was throwing very large offspring and we had to stop breeding with him. My son was on morning livestock feed duty on this particular day. He called me and said that there was a mom in trouble. He had moved her to a birthing stall but we needed to come and help.
When we got there the lamb had been born and was in the main area and the mom was in her birthing stall, clearly still in distress. I took a look at the lamb and decided that it was deceased and moved on. My husband came in and after assisting the mom and being satisfied that the mom and second lamb were okay, proceeded to the first lamb. I looked over and there was my husband picking up the lamb by the hind legs, just as I had, and as he gave a nice big swing ... I heard, "Oops," and there went the lamb across the shed. My son had just asked, "Is it dead?" and immediately followed with, "Well I guess it is now".
My poor husband had no idea just how slippery those little suckers are right after they are born. To this day I giggle every time I remember the look on his face when he looked at his hand and the lamb was gone and then he looked over to see if we were looking. It was funny. The lamb was definitely never going to be resuscitated and there was no hope for it anyway, but this was so very funny. To this day, my husband has never again tried to "swing a lamb."
Chapter 5: Sometimes There is One and Sometimes There are More
You have probably figured out by now that lambing and sheep, in general, are a very unique breed. Being a sheep farmer has taught me so very much over the years. The purpose of this book is to share some of that knowledge and experience with those who may benefit from it as well as those who just love to hear a good story. Lambing, in particular, is a very exciting and interesting time of the year for us. Sometimes we are expecting lambing to happen and sometimes it comes as a big surprise. Try as we might to keep ewes and rams separated they seem to manage to get together anyway and a few months later lo and behold we have lambs.
This chapter is dedicated to the excitement of lambing. Imagine it is Christmas morning and you are about to open a present. Well, lambing is somewhat akin to that excitement. Will you get just one lamb or maybe twins? Will it be a boy or a girl or maybe one of each. It is a very exciting and educational experience sharing in lambing with a ewe. Well, sometimes the unexpected happens....
About four years ago, we had a Hampshire Cross ewe named Sylvie. Sylvie was true to her name a beautiful silver grey colour. Sylvie was also one of twins so it was not surprising to us that she always gave birth to twins. The odd thing about Sylvie was that for some reason she always chewed off the tail of her lambs right after they were born. Now we usually dock the tails anyway. That is we put a small rubber band (designed especially for this purpose) around the tail shortly after the lambs are born. This stops the blood flow to the tail and it eventually dies and after a couple of weeks falls right off. It is painless for the lamb and a very important procedure. The reason for docking tails on lambs is so that there is no moist protected zone around their rear ends for flies to lay their eggs. If this were to happen then it would result in a horrible death for the lamb called "fly strike". I will not go into the details of this since it is extremely gross. So we dock the tails. But, Sylvie used to take care of this on her own.
Then about 14 months into having Sylvie, we got a new ram named Valentino Jett. He was pitch black and had the most beautiful fleece. Personality-wise however, he was nasty. Extremely domineering and definitely King of the Castle. But, Valentino Jett was also one of twins. Imagine our surprise the following March when Sylvie gave birth to triplets. All pitch black and all boys. They were beautiful and so darn cute. It was very exciting for us. We carefully selected the best of the three to become our new mating ram. Unfortunately for us, we neutered the other two. Lo and behold about a year later we lost the lone breeder to a mountain lion. At this stage we had lost both Sylvie and had slaughtered the arrogant domineering Valentino Jett. He had taken to butting everyone and everything in sight, including me. I complained bitterly to my husband about Valentino’s tendency to try to butt me. I would not take my eyes off that ram if I was in the shed. My husband would say, "Oh, just stay out of his way." Well that was great advice until the day he butted my husband. Half an hour later, Valentino was no more.
So the excitement of triplets came and went. It was such a great experience.
Then about two years after the triplets we got another huge surprise. One of our Dorset ewes started giving birth. She was so large we used to joke about needing a cart to help carry her belly. So she went into labor one morning and out popped number one, shortly thereafter followed by number two. Both were girls and it was very exciting. But she seemed to still be in labor and a few minutes later out popped girl number three. They were all a really good size for triplets so we were very happy. But, well she was not done yet. A few minutes later another little, very little lamb was born. It was a tiny little boy. Mom was very confused and seemed little able to cope with three let alone four. At the same time one of the other ewes was in labor. I scuttled the littlest lamb into a towel and brought him up to the conservatory. Our dog, Thimbleton, was beside himself with excitement. He started licking and cleaning and tending to that baby lamb as if he was a new mom himself. He instinctively seemed to know what to do. In short order he had the little lamb cleaned and up on its feet and moving around trying to find a mom to drink from. At the same time the second mom in the shed had just finished giving birth to a very clearly still-born lamb. So, we immediately brought the fourth lamb back from the conservatory, rubbed him with the afterbirth of the still born lamb and pretty soon the new mom had herself a live baby to care for and was a happy as a lark.
What was really the best part of this story was that this little dog, Thimbleton, would run out to the shed every opportunity that he got and he would climb up onto the haystacks so that he could see over the top of the birthing pen and he would check on his little baby boy. He had saved its life and he would go and check on it every opportunity that he got. Now that that lamb is grown and way bigger than Thimbleton, the attachment seems to have disappeared. Thimbelton anxiously awaits his next life saving task, be it chick, lamb or whatever. He just loves baby anythings.
< more Chapters aa they get sent to me - Stefan >
Copyright 2016, 2017 by Janet Bianco. <jcbianco at frontiernet.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.