Traditionally, counting sheep is supposed to help us fall asleep: it takes a shepherd to really know why that might be. It’s because they’re always on the move, and the shepherd either forgets who is counted and who is not, and starts again – again ; or because the count is completed without hiccup – but the total different to last time. Just keep counting, and counting again, until a consistent number is reached. If ever!
So, this morning, on the fifth count – or was it the sixth? (and that’s just the completed counts!), the majority opinion seemed to be that there were 23 ewes and their ewe lambs present for breakfast. Best count again …
Oh dear, 23. Hmm. Should be 24: 14 breeding ewes, and 10 of last year’s ewe lambs. Not sure who was missing – if a ewe, then she could just have lambed and stayed behind wherever the flock was at the time, as they generally do. She could be pretty much anywhere within a half mile or so radius: indeed she could in theory be anywhere amongst the island crofts, but in practice she’d be somewhere within the usual winter grazing range, from Haun in the west to somewhere over by Belle’s house. And anywhere between the hill fence and the shore. That’s a lot of ground to cover, with lots of ups and downs ditches and rock outcrops – impossible search it all.
Best to start with the nearest places that they are most commonly to be seen. And – thankfully! – it was in just such a place that I found her. From a distance, she could have been just a boulder, thrown into dark relief in the sunshine. Except that the sky was blanketed in cloud. And I don’t remember a boulder that shape just there …
It was the her eyes I spotted first: her head was thrown back, un-naturally held up to the sky, her eyes wild and staring – and worryingly still. No sound or movement – and cold to touch. Gulls calling above – and a couple of ravens hopping about on nearby rocks : they don’t even wait for the sheep to die before pecking out their eyes and tongue. I dropped to the ground a put my cheek against her mouth: faint warmth. I was either only just too late, or only just in time. I called to her, I shouted at her – “Don’t give up, I’m here to help you!” There was a very faint bleat.
She was entangled in discarded barbed wire. A length that had been removed from a fence during repairs, loosely coiled up – and just left. Probably 20 years ago or more – the croft was abandoned by its owner well before we came to Uist. In time the wire would have become swallowed up in a tussock of coarse grasses, and would have become almost invisible. Likely as not, she would have been grazing close by, but looking up suddenly a horn would have caught in a loop of barbed wire. Reacting and wriggling, a lock of wool would have been snagged … and from there on it gets worse and worse until they have no hope of escape, and just wait for death. They can get caught in brambles (blackberry bushes – or other thorny vegetation) by the same means, though generally it’s just the wool that catches, rather than the horns.
The wire had cut into the side of her head, and wire had got caught up in an ear tag: her struggles to escape had torn the ear away partly from the head, exposing muscle. Fortunately her eyes had just escaped being torn out – and I couldn’t yet see any other injury, though her legs were doubled up un-naturally. Above all she was utterly exhausted.
Wire-cutters would have been handy, but they were back at the croft store, and I didn’t want to risk leaving her alone, even for five minutes or so. I struggled – with bare hands – to bend the wire enough to free the lamb’s ear tag … and then one horn … and then the other. That left ‘just’ the tangling of wire and wool. Fortunately I had with me a brand new folding pocket knife, delivered just yesterday, and razor sharp. Starting at her head, I sliced through stretched-taught wool, working back as if shearing, until she was clear.
She didn’t try to escape. She just lay on the ground, quiet and still. I picked her up and carried her back to the croft store, laying her on the floor with her head resting in a bucket, laid on its side, with some sheep pellets to tempt her to eat (and to black out alarming visual distractions). Nothing.
Leaving her to rest, I went off to feed the hens. When I returned, 10-15 minutes later, she was as I’d left her, on her side, head in the bucket. But there were noises – of eating. I sat with her, applying an antiseptic to her wounds. After a while, she tried to stand up: I helped steady her. She thanked me by weeing on my shoes. And for good measure some ‘nuggets’. Oh dear!
After I’d completed a few simple jobs outdoors on the croft, I returned to find her unsteadily exploring the croft store. Time to return her to the flock …
A lucky escape?