[This is the first of a series of three posts, concerning two prominent ewes of our flock, Primrose and Queenie.]
I pulled out the lynchpins, let the ramp down to the ground and stepped well aside. After a few moments of hesitation, the first sheep stepped out onto the ramp and quickly he and others close behind had disappeared into the darkness beyond the reach of the trailer’s tail lights. But stomping and anxious bleating at the front of the trailer told me that there were more sheep there – too fearful to leave it’s safety, however unpleasant it might be. I let down the shallow side flap, reached in as far as I could and – as I couldn’t see them, the sheep being as black as was the night – I hoped that by sweeping my arm forward repeatedly, I would at least exert a degree of psychological pressure on them – how many there were I wasn’t sure – to leave the trailer and join their friends somewhere in the darkness of the pen. Once even the first of them had stepped onto the ramp, it just needed a ‘bark’ from me and they, too, were gone. Groping my way after them – and cursing my stupidity for leaving the torch at home, I found the big gate and swung it gently closed, rattling it to check the pen was secure. I reached through the bars of the gate to set down food and water, stood up and turned away and that was it, my job was done. Eighteen months of dedicated care and attention – from their first day of life until this day, their last-but-one – and a final night sheltered in the lairage of the abattoir. It was the logical conclusion of all that invested labour and care. This was where I let go of my charges : doing so is intrinsic to all farming, compassionate farming included! I don’t look back – just walk away.
Back at the trailer, I raised and secured the ramp, and did the same for the side flap. The vehicle engine was running (with the lights on I didn’t want the battery running flat), and it was a blustry night – with occasional passing sleety showers pinging off the trailer roof, so there was a lot of background noise. But, just as I secured the last lynchpin, I thought I heard a soft bleating – the sort of bleat by which a lamb calls to its mother – from close by – for recognition, for affection, for protection against the elements, for milk. And there it was again! I bent forward, my ear to the mesh of the trailer’s side-flap. And again! I turned to look, and against the darkness I could see no further than a disembodied nose – glistening with damp in the faintly reflected light of the vehicle tail lights. In that moment, I understood.
“Denise!” She couldn’t hear me, above the noises of engine, wind and rain. She had come to offer help if I needed it, to keep me company on the long journey (and ensure, on the drive home, that I was concentrating on the single-track road, not dwelling on the events of such a day) ; and if neither of those was immediately called for, she would be knitting. I opened the driver door of the van, and looked across. “Denise, I need you”. Her pins ceased their motion and her hands dropped to her lap : “Why, what’s the matter?”. I paused, still unsure as to the right name : but no, it could only be her : “It’s Primrose. She’s coming back with us”
According to her registration certificate, issued by the Hebridean Sheep Society, An Gàrradh Mòr Cara was born on 8th May 2016. That’s very late for our flock, and as I write this I recall that we’d already given up hope that her mother, Finlas Ewe 11, would give birth at all that year. She – like most of our older ewes, had come to us in 2010 from a croft in the nearby island of Benbecula, when she was little more than a lamb herself. To be honest, she didn’t prove to be a good mother : yes, she produced twins more reliably than the others, but no sooner had she given birth to them she’d be off, searching out grazing for herself, but never giving the poor lambs a chance to catch up or suckle. Most years we ended up taking the lambs off her and caring for them ourselves. In 2013 or perhaps ’14 she developed mastitis in one udder (the only ewe of ours ever to have mastitis), and then – and ever since – the other udder would swell up so much with milk that notwithstanding help from us no lamb could feed from the engorged teat. Most shepherds would have drawn the line there, and … But the fact was that she was in all other respects a very good sheep, kept herself in tip-top-health – by thrifty grazing, and dumping her progeny on us to feed! – be first-in-line for the ram, and being in such good health she would be sure to give birth to two lovely lambs … And so it would be year after year, round and round we’d go! That year – 2016, however, she was late – and there was only one lamb.
It’s been our practice to give every ‘pet lamb’ a ‘pet name’. Other sheep might be given a pet name (in addition to any pedigree name on their certificate) but only if they do something to warrant it – and that name might prove to be temporary. (Pet names are useful, as they allow D and I to converse easily about the latest sheepy adventures – and to apportion blame rightly for the naughtiness they get up to!) Naming is the prerogative of Denise ; and in the case of new-born lambs the name comes from the first natural thing that D sees after she is first introduced by me to the lamb in question (which, incidentally, is usually at mid-morning coffee break). It being May, and the banks of the crofts and the headland by the walled garden being speckled with wild Primroses, that’s how that particular lamb got it’s name.
Primrose’s upbringing was much the same as all our other pet lambs, before and since. She was lucky to have company : unusually, another ewe had difficulty that year, and so Primrose had a little playmate – Rhubarb, a boy born a week earlier. Their first few weeks are spent in the back garden, with a hay-lined shelter for the nights, or cold wet weather. After the first feeds of collustrum, they are bottle-fed milk-substitute (made up from powder bought in big sacks) four times a day. At first, feeding them can be fraught with problems – especially if they are weak (but neither Primrose nor Rhubarb were weaklings!) or if they are fidgety. Sooner or later, all lambs get fidgety and greedy, and then feeding time moves from the kitchen by the Aga to outside, us sitting on a joiner’s hop-up and later just standing still holding out the bottle with the lamb attached to that, sucking greedily and energetically!
It doesn’t take the lambs long to work out where to go to get a feed : the back door. We must have forgotten about that when we renovated the house, making the back door triple-glazed, full-height! Our kitchen/breakfast table is right across the room from the door : there’s no escape. Soon the lambs are making themselves comfortable on the door mat of the porch : the porch is a nice place to relieve themselves, too … Yuk! A barrier across the porch opening seems a good idea, but the height required to stop lambs jumping over it, and the bracing necessary to stop them battering it down, make such barriers too awkward for us to use, with our hands full of garden produce or the shopping. For reasons we don’t fully understand, when they do start to eat solids, Hebridean lambs will not eat hay, or the nice and lush and certainly fresh grass of our lawns and grass paths. Hebridean lambs only like to eat the leaves (and flowers) from our garden flowers, bushes and trees. Perhaps they think they are goats? By now the lambs will be down to three feeds a day, and we’re desperate to get them out of the garden and off our hands!
Tilly loves our pet lambs : she licks their faces after they’ve finished their milk, and cleans them up after they’ve been busy at their other ends. Our pet lambs love Tilly! After all, she is black and has four legs, like them. But Tilly doesn’t give them milk : Jonathan gives them milk! Tilly must be an aunt : Aunty Tilly! A good-fun sort of aunty, who plays with you when she comes to visit! Tilly and the lambs trot along with me across the road to Cnoc-a-Deas, a headland of rock and rough grasses – which our pet lambs immediately start to eat (the grass, that is). Perhaps the taste of what their mother grazes on, out on the hills, gets through to the embryo lambs via the placenta and umbilical cord? That way they recognize what is good to eat, without a mother to teach it to them? Well, that’s my theory! Then it’s down to the beach, and Tilly leads the races across the dazzling bright shell-sand. Too-and-fro, too-and-fro … and then I lead the way back to the walled garden. Time for a bottle of milk for the lambs, a bowl of water and a wee biscuit for Tilly, and coffee and toast for D and J In such things there is pure joy!
But it’s a joy that is transient, if only because …. well, we can’t keep every lamb that’s born, can we : that wouldn’t be practical ; it wouldn’t be financially possible. It’s not why they are born, or the purpose of the flock. We keep sheep because we like them, but they have to pay their way, otherwise they wouldn’t exist at all.
By this stage I’ll already be taking the lambs with me over to the croft in the morning : if there’s just one, he or she may just jump up into the footwell by the front passenger seat. If there’s two, then there’ll be a cage in the back of the van. They soon learn to jump up and back out themselves.
At first the lambs go to the croft with me, follow me around as I do my duties – checking fencing, feeding the chickens, looking out for the geese (who mostly feed themselves without help from us), and – of course, feeding the sheep. The pet lambs are, as you might expect, fascinated. So too are the non-pet lambs : their mothers, less so. A ewe will ID-check the pet lambs with their noses, but will always push them away with a toss of their heads.
After a week or so, I’ll stay longer at the croft, working on fencing, ditching, or one of many other jobs that need doing. At first pet lambs will stay close to me, then later I’ll leave the lambs with the flock, collecting them when I go home for lunch. At first they’ll be bleating for me, but very quickly it’ll be me calling them, calling them away from their games with the other lambs. The next step is to leave the pet lambs at the croft all day, collecting them at dusk to spend the night at home with us : by then, bottle feeds are just twice a day, and the pet lambs will be eating (croft) grass – they learn from watching and copying the mothers.
The next step, each morning, is to take a bottle of milk over to the croft with the lamb, and to feed the lambs there, and to leave them there. Oh, the pitiful bleating as we walk away! Oh the emptiness of the drive home! But, as the year advances and the days lengthen, the bottle being emptied, the pet lambs prance off back to their friends. Far too quickly, the lambs’ interest in their evening milk slackens : they’re not waiting for me, bleating frantically, when I arrive ; they’re bleating, but not frantically ; they don’t finish the milk ; they don’t come when I call – I have to go and find them ; they come to me, take just a little milk, and then they turn and are gone. Soon, it’s the same with the morning feed, too. Then, I know the time has come to let go. D and I make an occasion of it, if we can. The last evening, we go over to the croft together, though it’s Denise that feeds the lambs for the last time. We pause to watch them play. That’s the last time we will use their pet names, or single them out for special attention.
Unless something happens, that is. Like a certain ewe-lamb who, without a ewe-mother to show her where to go and what to graze – and where and what to avoid (though we’ve always suspected that Queenie, as alpha-female, keeps an eye on these motherless lambs). She strayed into a patch of briars, her fleece soon snagging on a briar. As soon as a lamb or sheep turns to look at what was holding her, or to escape, the hold of the briar is made firmer, and every movement snags the sheep more and more, round and round, tigher and tighter and eventually … In such circumstances, if not found soon, a sheep will die a slow and pitiful death of exhaustion and dehydration, and may possibly be attacked by carrion crows, who don’t wait for death. Alas, the hill grazing (where the sheep go for the summer months) is big and wild, and a lost sheep could be almost anywhere – but it’s the known danger-spots that I would first think of searching. That particular, unusually, I had reason to go back to the croft, and my task being done, I thought to check the sheep, up on the hill grazings. One was missing! I set off immediately on a search of the nearest briar patches, and thankfully she was found there, and couldn’t have been caught there long. I didn’t recognize Primrose at first – it was more than six months since the evening D and I had fed her for the last time. It was Primrose who recognized me – perhaps by smell, as I bent over her, cutting away the briars and if necessary the entangled wool : so close that her nose was close to my ear – which seems to be key to one sheep identifying another. But you can read more of this in Primrose Amongst the Briars – the post D and I wrote at the time.
It was to be another six or seven months before I next had any dealing with Primrose – on that fateful night at Lochmaddy Abattoir, late Autumn 2017. That was an interlude long enough for me to have forgotten about her (unless reminded), and her to have completely let go of me. Let go, yes, but not erased from memory. A lamb – a sheep – has a better memory for faces, voices, smells – and certainly the combination of these things, than we humans have. There is scientific evidence to support that assertion, but not so my experience that a sheep will never forget the face, voice, and smell of a human who has saved that sheep from danger – from death. Even the most unapproachable, awkward blighter of a sheep will, if rescued from entanglement or blow-fly attack, or some other great danger, will become your most devoted friend thereafter – and will never forget you, though you may him or her.
But that night in Lochmaddy, Primrose remembered me as her ‘mummy-daddy’ who had fed her, nurtured her, released her to be with her kind, and then found and saved her from death. And on that strength she appealed to me, not to send her out into the dark night with the others. In her fear, she clung to me. She came home with us. What would you have done with her?
We got home just before midnight – too late to drive on to Eriskay, so Primrose stayed in the trailer that night. The next morning, having returned Primrose to the flock, and having resolved that she would join the older ewes as breeding stock, D and I submitted a registration form and payment to the Hebridean Sheep Society. Thre was no doubt that she was very well qualified : excellent bloodlines, very good breed conformation and with excellent health (thanks to that mother of hers!). Officially, she would be An Gàrradh Mòr Cara : that is, she was born into the An Gàrradh Mòr flock, and her personal name is Cara. But in practice? Primrose!
So, now you understand that there is a close bond between Primrose and me – a familial bond. The other sheep – especially the ewes who are mothers – can see that, and hear it : in the way Primrose behaves towards me ; and in the way she calls to me – the call of a lamb to its mother for food, protection, affection. No other sheep in the flock does that. It’s those skills – those social skills, that gives Primrose status in the eyes of her peers. And that’s how Primrose has come to be the one who pushes through the throng of sheep to reach me, and the others pull away and let her through, and I’m sure will often wait for her to take the first mouthful of hay, or give way to her at the trough of sheep pellets. She is, I’m sure, quite aware of this by now, and exploits it as naturally as a Princess will amuse herself directing the servants, flirting with the Chancellor or the sons of a Duke. Primrose does now seem to have pre-eminence amongst the flock on account of her social status and social skills.
[Tomorrow, the next part of this series will consider what qualities put Queenie at the head of the flock for such a long time.]
That night in Lochmaddy, November 2017, started at the croft, late afternoon – already dark , with Denise and I rounding up the sheep into the fank ; separating the hogget lambs (those 18months or so old) from the others ; and transferring them to the trailer. (We also had to check the health of all the ewes and the ram to ensure they were in good condition for ready for tupping.)
By a twist of fate, that same evening, one and a half thousand miles away, in Pamplona, our daughter Catherine was representing D and myself at a meeting with the seven siblings who owned, and were selling to us, their old family house in San Martin de Unx : agents and lawyers were present, also. The purpose of the meeting was for Catherine to sign on our behalf the contract to purchase : there were, however, a number of points that required clarification, and that was proceeding through Whatsapp. My phone was left on the roof of the trailer, in a clear plastic bag to protect it from the rain. Every time I took a hogget lamb over to the trailer, I checked for any communication, and if necessary referred to Google Translate. Denise had to wait with the sheep in the fank whilst I consulted with Denise regarding whatver point of detail was being addressed ; and then I had to compose, translating if necessary, and send the reply, in many cases with files from Google Drive attached. This was repeated several times, and each time my working gloves were getting wetter, muddier, and greasier – and more difficult to remove and put on again. The fank was getting slippier and slippier with wet and … well, you can guess.
When everyone was content, Catherine signed the document, and we set off for Lochmaddy – already mentally and physically exhausted.
At midnight, back at home from Lochmaddy, I was sitting on the stairs with a glass of wine, discussing the events of the day with Denise and Becky (she’d been looking after the sheep whilst we were away – we had returned from that first trip to Navarra only the night before). Quite suddenly, I was struck by the huge significance of what had happened. Uist would no longer be both centre and circumference of our lives ; and our crofting would no longer (and, arguably, need no longer) be driven by the need to make a contribution to our household economy. We had, no doubt, entered into a period of great changes to our lives, changes that will likely take several years to come to their conclusion.