Shealladh Bharraigh / View of Barra – from Caireasbhal, Isle of South Uist : Loch Dun na Cille, Leth Meadhanach and – 15 miles away across the sea – Beinn Seabhal, highest point, Isle of Barra
[This post is the last (and shortest!) of a series of three posts concerning the two most prominent ewes – Primrose and Queenie – of our flock of Hebridean sheep.]
So, if you’ve been following this series of posts, you’ll have learned about the qualities and characters of both Primrose and Queenie. In this third and last post I’ll consider how it is that such a young ewe – not yet three years old, and having given birth only once (to a single lamb) could usurp the alpha-female more than three times her age, vastly more experienced, and equipped with an array of ewesful skills. [Sorry, I couldn’t resist that! But ewe did not it was coming!]
When we were away from home for a couple of months, last autumn, our daughter Becky commented to us, on the phone one day, that she thought Queenie was ‘showing her age’. I didn’t recall noticing anything to that effect before we left home : sure she’d got grey/white showig around her nose and pretty much of all of her fleece, but that had been becoming more noticeable over three or more years, and what we see every day we don’t notice the gradual changes in, whereas Becky hadn’t seen Queenie for eight months or so. So maybe she had a point.
However, in early December, on my first morning back at home feeding the animals, I did indeed notice that Queenie seemed somewhat change. First and foremost, when I arrived at the gate with their feed, Queenie was not in pole position, at the head of the press of sheep and ready to press her case – should it be necessary – for her special ration – on account of special responsibilities – ahead of all the others. She was lingering at the back, keeping her distance along with the handful of older ewes who had never learned to be confident (or trusting) enough to jostle amongst the others for special treats : and some of those pretended indifference at the prospect of a tasty and nourishing breakfast, regardless of the weather and paucity of grazing.
There seemed to be something about her eyes and demeanour which made me think she was sad and confused – as if she had experienced rejection. She’d had an accident whilst D and I were away : an ear tag had got caught in a hay-net, and in her frustration she’d ripped the tag out of her right ear, and now that ear flopped down, looking a bit ragged ; and together with the grey hairs on her face, and the distant and detached expression, she didn’t look the Queenie I’d come to know well and to love.
I thought over that idea of rejection, and in doing so I was transported back 20 years or so to when we lived in south-west Shropshire – very close to the border with Wales, and my only experience of unemployment. Now another story to tell entirely, so suffice it to say that during that period – about 18 months if I recall correctly, I suffered with chronic depression, and in particular a feeling of rejection – that all the skills I’d honed and which were had been very well regarded and rewarded in Germany were now worthless. Partly because of the difference in engineering design standards and industry norms, but above all because of a difference in attitudes to technical excellence – and those who are recognised by their peers (at least in Germany they were) as experts. In the UK, technical excellence is not respected, it’s just a commodity, and a graduate is fresh from University is so much cheaper.
So, okay, you’re wondering how this relates to Primrose and Queenie. Well, it was that experience of my own that made me question why Queenie might feel like that. The answer came immediately : it’s because, this year, we did not send the flock up on to the Beinn Sgiathan hill grazings for the summer, instead we kept them on our croft only, – in the fields we’ve created by enclosing and dividing the croft with new fences. We kept them in partly because of the very cold dry spring – followed by a cold wet summer – had resulted in very little grass to eat up on the hill. Also, it takes an additional hour of work each morning to trek up to the hill to check their okay, and then back down again. And then, after the summer, when we have in the past let the sheep out to graze freely among the low ground in and amongst the croft houses, we kept them in again – to cut down on the work for Becky, as the paucity of forage in winter means the sheep don’t always come to to our croft store to get their breakfast – we have to go and find them.
Our fields are not small and flat – there are in each field a number of small ravines, rock outcrops, cliffs, streams and dry sunny slopes, and other variations in landform and topography ; but – it doesn’t require any special qualities to find your way round even the biggest field. The opportunities for shelter or fresh forage are limited, and indeed during this winter almost all the feed they need is being taken to them as bales of hay and buckets of concentrate. There is, quite simply, no need for Queenie’s skills, character and experience. In that sense, she is redundant.
Instead of grazing throughout the day, there is instead a scrum for the food rations, and to get to the head of the scrum you either need to be big and tough, or you need to have the right connections ; like, for example …
The shepherd himself being your mummy-daddy : that seems to work a treat! Isn’t that right, Primrose dear?
Now that I’m aware of this, I’m trying to avoid compensate by giving Queenie special attention – which would rob her of her dignity. Instead, I’m hoping that this coming Spring will be kinder, and the grazing on the hill good enough to send the flock up there, even if only for a few days at a time. It’s right, and good, to enable sheep – as is true of all animals we have care of – to live a life that allow for natural behaviours, and provides opportunities for exercise and development of all their faculties – including those of the highest order.
[This is the second of a series of three posts, concerning two prominent ewes of our flock, Primrose and Queenie.]
The ewe that we now know as Queenie joined our flock in late 2009 as one of about three ewes we’d bought from a breeder of Hebrideans in the island of Benbecula, to the north of us. They all came with their Hebridean Sheep Society registration certificates, so were pedigree Hebrideans.
According to her certificate she’s Finlas Ewe 12 : that is, born into the Finlas flock, and was the 12th ewe-lamb born to that flock. No name, pedigree or otherwise : she was indistinguishable from the others – other than the numbers on her ear tags.For the first year of our newly-formed An Gàrradh Mòr flock, I was working away from home most of the time (blog posts from that era used to be in a category titled ‘In Exile’ !) : Denise was in charge of the sheep, chickens, geese, cats and – and indeed almost everything! – whilst I was away. Even after I returned home for good, in late 2010, I had such a long backlog of work that it was a two or more until I could to see the unique character and qualities of each individual sheep. In fact the first mention of Queenie by that name is in the Scottish Holding Register (a log book – actually a spreadsheet – required by law to be maintained by every keeper of livestock) for the year 2014 : ‘Queenie’ has been added in the Comments field. The first post of this blog that mentions her by name is at the start of lambing season 2015. It seems that Queenie had already established a reputation for lambing first – which almost always means first to accept the ram. In fact I think she very quickly established a reputation for herself of being first in line for everything!
But it was when we started to let the sheep out to wander freely (as we’re entitled to do) the hills in summer (May to mid-October), and the lower land in winter (remainder of the year), that I started to realize her qualities extended well beyond being a good feeder, a good breeder, a good lamber, and a good mother. She was all those things, and a good leader as well : by Autumn 2016 it was obvious that where she went, the others followed ; what she did, the others copied ; and they respected her too, giving way to her whenever there was something on offer. And yet there was one more quality that became apparent through and after extended spells of bad weather, and through each successive winter of storms – especially cold wet winds out of the North West : she is a survivor, and more than that, she shows the rest of the flock how to survive with her. But let me give you some examples – from events that really occurred just as I describe …
The flock is up on the hill, and it’s late October, with the weather increasingly unsettled. For the past three days winds from the South East have hurled squally showers down on the hill, and the wet is weighing down the sheep’s well-grown fleeces, and is beginning to penetrate through to their skin, chilling their bodies. They must keep moving to generate some heat, but they must also graze. What they need is a sheltered spot. Now the islands do rock as other lands do trees, though being hard they are as likely to exacerbate the windy conditions as provide shelter ; but there nonetheless certain possibilities. Queenie knows just the right place that will give not only provide shelter from the wind but will provide relief from the rain – which will fly nearly horizontally above their back over the top of the rock outcrops. Climbing up the hill to check on the flock, day after day, I began to learn to observe the weather conditions, and head off towards where I think the sheep are most likely to be found. If the weather is still bad, Queenie will keep the sheep there, but returning my calls of ‘Trobhaibh! Trobhaibh! Trobhaibh’ [Oh come hither dear ones, come hither …] she will lead me to them, and they will take their feed there in their rocky refuge. But if the weather is abating, Queenie will break cover and, calling back to me as she runs full-pelt towards my own calls, I’ll lead them back towards the ‘hill gate’ at the top end of our croft – which is their normal feeding station when up on the hill.
Another example would be when the wind has been belting in off the Atlantic – so from the West – for day after day, gale force or more – without a pausing to let us catch breath. The rain is only light and intermittent, but enough that the wind is very chilling. But it’s the the sheer unrelenting brute force of the wind that makes it exhausting even for the sheep, with four feet on the ground and a thicky woolly fleece to keep themselves steady as they move across the slippery rocks and grass and try to graze. So, Queenie leads the flock off to Rosinis, an abandoned crofting township nearly a mile to the East : there’s a valley there, hidden-away with lush grass in the valley bottom, almost completely sheltered from westerlies. But Queenie wants the flock to be ready to put in an appearance in the morning, when I arrive to feed them back at the rocky outcrop above our hill gate. So at dusk she leads the flock up the slope of the valley to just below the top, where they’ll be out of the wind – when they’re lying down. In the morning, I climb the hill with a bag of feed – and a pair of binoculars : I’ve got to know where they’re likely to be. The rain has stopped, and the wind has eased a little, but still from the west, and will carry my voice to Queenie and the others. I turn to face south, cup my hands to my mouth and cast my call up against the rocky buttresses of Beinn Sgiathan : ‘Trobhaibh! … ” I pause, waiting for the first echo to return to me from Beinn Sgiathan ; and then second and third echoes, successively weaker than the first, rebound from the rocky slopes of Easabhal and Roineabhal, each two miles or so away to the north in South Uist, the other side of the Sound of Eriskay. I repeat the call : ‘Trobhaibh! … ” and immediately raise the binoculars to scan the the many low ridges and outcrops to the east. I spot a pair of horns and the upper head of a Hebridean – and I break out in a smile : it’s Queenie. I call again ‘Trobhaibh! … ” and through the binoculars more heads appear – and Queenie stands up, in full view. I call one final time, Queenie breaks into a run, her two half-sisters are up too and set off behind her. I can’t hear them, but I know they’re bleating, full-throated. Within seconds a bevy of ewes and lambs have appeared at the crest of the rise, and the quicker-witted waste no time in chasing after the others ; but Queenie and her leading posse have already disappeared and reappeared several times as they cross the many gullies and bogs, Queenie navigating as straight a line as the treacherous ground allows.
Soon, the whole flock is gathered about me, the bolder crowding close, the more timid holding back from the throng, but Queenie has already recieved her reward – a half-ounce or so of sheep pellets taken direct from my cupped hand, and the others will feed from the troughs on the ground. I never make any fuss of Queenie other than that small reward after exceptional feats of knowledge, wisdom, skill, and determination. I don’t pet her or molly-coddle her : in fact she doesn’t care for such things at all. Filled with pride and joy in our flock, I watch over them, singing Queenie’s praise to the hills and anyone who cares to pause from hauling up their creels or slating a roof or fixing broken power lines after the storm. The flock having had their fill, Queenie pauses, surveying the landscape, and sets off in the direction of the best grazing for the conditions, and the others follow.
Queenie posseses all those qualities and skills that are necessary for a sheep to survive in the extreme conditions of the Outer Hebrides, but which, even so, most sheep possess only in part or weakly. But as for Queenie, she possesses all these attributes in full measure, pressed-down and overflowing : she doesn’t just survive, she thrives! But it would be fair to say that Queenie’s status rests on her outstanding survival skills.
[Tomorrow this series of three posts will conclude by considering why Queenie seems to have lost her leading position to the younger, smaller Primrose.]