[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.