Jonathan & Denise >
This is Maisie. Maisie the First, Only – and Final.
She was the first lamb born in 2018 – and the only pet lamb that year. Her father, Foss Scott – who we have come to know well and love, was sold, late last summer, to a younger couple recently moved here and building up a working croft, just a mile or so away. Scott won’t be replaced. So, alas, there will be no more lambs born to the An Gàrradh Mòr flock, and so Maisie is almost certain to be the final pet lamb we’ll have the care of.
Every one of our sheep has its own unique personality, and with all of our pet lambs over the years we’ve had additional privilege of seeing their characters form and develop close-up, perhaps even having a hand in shaping who they are. Maisie, though, even at just six weeks old, showed a remarkable intelligence and force of character that marked her out amongst not only the pet lambs who have gone before her, but even the best of the lambs fed and raised entirely by their mothers. Maisie is a force of nature!
At about a week old, she contracted a bacterial infection – resulting in the condition known as scour (diaorrhea that is very watery and almost clear). It resisted treatment with the simple remedies – first a solution of salt, bicarbonate of soda and glucose (known as ‘electrolyte’) and then a dose of active bio-yoghurt. We thought we might, exceptionally, have to resort to the vet for treatment ; but where previous pet lambs became very weak, and survived, Maisie kept going regardless, never needing feeding by tube, and always alert and keen.
The bad bacteria were eventually displaced by the good, and then it was time to introduce her to the flock, over on the croft in Eriskay. I put a large dog crate in the back of the van, put down a layer of straw, and that was her personal transport sorted. First lesson on croft life is to learn where home base is : it’s where the van, containing me, arrives every morning, and where it stays until it’s time to home to the walled garden ; its where the croft store is – into which I first disappear, then magically reappear – carrying food for sheep. (It might be food for the geese or the hens, but as far as the sheep are concerned, anything in a bucket or bag or carried in my arms is for them!) So Maisie – like all the pet lambs before her – learned to jump out of the crate and the back of the van, to follow me into the store, back out of the store, and to follow me to all the various departments. Then she jumped back in the van – and into the crate – for the journey home. Back at the walled garden, there’s a section of the garden we can easily close off to contain pet lambs : there’s a little shelter with its floor covered in straw and ewe’s wool, which Maisie needed no persuading to use, at night time or as shelter from daytime rain.
Little by little, we extended the range. First, the lamb would stay with me longer on the croft, remaining always close to me, exploring the vegetation with all its senses, or relaxing in the sun as I worked.
At first, taking her up to meet the rest of the flock, she’d stop and bleat madly at me, refusing to follow: I’d end up going back and carrying her as well as the bags of feed and net full of hay, and crook tucked under my arm. She was already grown to quite a size! But on the third day, she’d learned the pattern : as soon as I set out across the new road, she bolted off ahead of me, stopping only to check that I was within sight. Reaching the gate with the ewes and other lambs on the other side, waiting to be fed, Maisie just couldn’t contain her excitement : she’d dash hither and thither, crashing into fences, gates, my legs – anything, and leaping and vaulting in the air! Such simple, untramelled happiness, and such a joy to behold!
The next step was to leave the lamb with the ewes in the morning, when I fed them. Was it ready for that? Well, I let it mingle with the others – the other lambs, especially – and then waited to see what happened if I walked quietly away. If the pet lamb doesn’t bleat and run after me, then the ‘letting go’ stage has started. The first time did that to Maisie, I’d climbed over the fence and walked all the way back to the croft store and the van, and had just got into the driver’s seat and about to pull closed the van door when Maisie hurtled across the road and leapt up into my lap! But it was just a few evenings later that I was able to leave her there on the croft for the day : she simply turned away and ran off to play with her little friends until I returned later in the day to collect her.
The following stages came soon enough : I’d come home for lunch without the lamb, and return to collect it in the late afternoon ; and then soon enough that wouldn’t be until just before sunset – ever day a little later, until it was nearly midnight at mid-summer. Then came the sad day when, after I gave the lamb its evening bottle of milk at the croft (I’ll have started feeding it there, in and amongst the rest of the flock, some while back), I’d turn and walk quietly away, leaving the lamb to find it’s own bed for the night.
Maisie was already four months old when she spent her first night without her comfy bed of straw and wool ; and in place of a dry roof over her head there was just the bare night sky, whether it be cold and full of stars, or a muggy night of unceasing rain. She had no mother to shield, warm and reassure her, but she could learn from their example, learning what patches of ground are well-drained, and which rock outcrops or steep banks provide shelter from the wet south-westerlies, or the chill winds out of the north.
Queenie is the undisputed alpha-female of the flock, and it seems to me – from several years of close observation – that her leadership position extends to playing the role of Auntie to any lambs that end up without mothers – at least once they have learned to survive on solid food alone. Her milk is for her own lambs exclusively ; but when there’s something afoot, then she always seems to have any pet lambs close by. Wouldn’t those pet lambs be naturally drawn to the leader of the flock, for guidance and protection : What do you think?
At five months old, Maisie was living full time with the flock, taking part – joyously! – in the chaotic frenzy of the lamb races which break out from time to time – expecially when the sun shines after prolonged rain. As all the lambs gradually become more independent of their mothers, lambs find special friends to snuggle up with at night. One time I found Maisie, lying with a special friend, their necks draped over each other’s shoulders : I began to see the two of them together most days.
Arriving, each morning, to check the flock – by then without any bottle milk for Maisie – she didn’t run up to me for a stroke and some attention – as had become her habit. I took this as an indication of her growing independence ; but after three or four days of the same, and she wasn’t responding when I called, I became concerned, and went looking for her. She was at the back of the flock, furthest from me, and somewhat apart from the rest ; and on the last occasion she was some distance away, out of view. Again, she made no attempt to respond to my calls or attention. There was something in my subconscious telling me, this is not independence, this is a downward spiral to death. I got hold of her, and checked her over carefully. Two serious issues : fragments of tape worm on at her backside ; and on her back, just ahead of her tail, maggots under her skin and amongst the wool – maggots of the dreaded green-bottle fly. (The infestation by maggots is also known as ‘fly-strike’.) Two forms of parasite : the worms would weaken her until she would contract and die from – most likely – a bacterial infection of the bowels ; the maggots would quite simply eat her alive.
I carried her to the croft store, and there I cut away the wool from the maggot-infested area, and applied to the skin a strong solution of Crovac : that drove the maggots to the surface, from where I could carefully scrape away the mass of writhing dyeing maggots. I’ve had to do this before with other lambs, and some where the infestation has progressed significantly further than this : all of those survived and went on to do well, so I was confident Maisie would recover from the fly-strike.
The worms, however, would require monitoring and repeated treatments over a number of days, during which time she was extremely susceptible to bacterial infections. So, Maisie came home with me in the van, and with advice and medication from the vet, Denise and I eventually got the tapeworm to eject itself from Maisie’s bowles : we found a huge grotesque mass on the lawn, which – out of curiosity – we unravelled and found it measured almost ten metres in length!
September 2019, a year or so later. Around this time of year, pet lambs from the previous year – about 16-17 months old – can be expected to have merged completely with the flock, no longer coming to me – whether I call or not, and not even showing any special recognition of me. Indeed the same would be true in the other direction : I would not be making any effort to seek her out, call her name, or treat her any differently to the others – even assuming I could identify her with certainty. Which is as it should be, because in just a few weeks from now the hogget lambs would be going ‘to Lochmaddy’ – to the abbatoir. But not this year.
Jonathan and Denise >
Last autumn, after the hogget lambs had come back from Lochmaddy and were in the freezers, we decided not to tup the ewes in November – or indeed at any time in the future. That marked the point at which we committed to giving up the production of hogget lamb. We carried 24 sheep through the winter, their ages ranging from ten-year-old matriarchs down to the lambs born in 2018. In April this year we decided to reduce numbers further, and after advertising locally we sold six sheep of mixed ages to each of two buyers : so now our flock numbers just twelve.
Two of those twelve are 2018-born wedders (ie castrated males) that we had intended to take to the abattoir this year – the last ever batch to go, the meat not being for sale, but just for us. However, we’ve recently discovered that the abattoir at Lochmaddy is closed for the forseeable future – and quite possibly will never re-open. (It’s scarcely kept going in recent years, as there just isn’t the business to justify the capital investment required to keep up with constantly evolving regulations and customer expectations.) The next nearest abattoir is across the sea in the Isle of Barra, to the south : and that’s also on a knife-edge, for the same reason. Besides, the additional complications and costs of transporting our sheep to Barra make it uneconomical, impractical, unsustainable, for us to continue producing hogget lamb. So, if we hadn’t already chosen to stop production of hogget lamb, and hadn’t sold most of the lambs born last year (and to find a new role for those we’ve kept) we’d have now been in the impossible situation of having sixteen or so hogget lambs with no abbatoir to take them to, and forced to sell them at the autumn sales for next to nothing … But let’s not dwell any longer on such things!
Those two wedders are the only ‘boys’ in the flock of twelve. Then there’s Queenie and three other ewes from our original flock, all born in 2009 ; and Primrose, born 2016 to one of those four matriarchs. The other seven were all born in 2018, so are now considered hogs or hoggets (between one and two years old), and all are the progeny of the four matriarchs and Primrose. (Yes, that’s right, there are two pairs of twins amongst them!)
Photo – from left to right : Fraoich (gazing out to sea) ; Cara (aka Primrose – such a beautiful face!); Floraidh (Primrose’s daughter – same fine nose as her mother) and Fuideigh (aka Maisie : typically for her, she’s nearest the camera, nearest to me).