I’ve been on a steep learning curve in the sixteen months since I moved to the Highlands to live with D on the family farm. I’ve learned to build and repair fences, and harvest, bale and wrap haylage (a wetter brand of hay). I’ve learned to use a compost toilet, and all about the different sorts of drainage ditches – stone, mole, and piped. And there were less tangible things: I’ve had to learn to slow down, to relax about deadlines being shoved about by the weather or our resources (financial or physical) or our skills (in farming and in life). To be a part of a family again, and to help care for D’s Mum. I’ve discovered muscles again that I’d forgotten I had, and come to accept a level of intimacy with mud and manure that city living can’t prepare you for: four days before Christmas, the trees for our new orchard were finally delivered, and we planted them while sliding around in mud so thick after a wet summer/fall that we should have called it mud wrestling and sold tickets. We were afraid the roots would be so clogged, the trees wouldn’t survive till spring (they survived). We’re composting our own waste; have been collecting piles of old horse manure from where they’ve been rotting in various places on our land and our neighbour’s; and on a big sheep maintenance day, I’ll end up covered – head to toe – in sheep poo. And the midges… sometimes I think farming is all about mud, manure, and midges…
But it’s from each other and our little herd of sheep that we’ve learned the most, and faced the biggest challenges – and lessons. And not all of them on the practicalities of lambing or breeding. Or of digging impacted poo out of neglected hooves. The sheep are offering us ongoing lessons in love.
At the end of this month, it’ll be a year since we became shepherds. I’d never worked with sheep before, and Donald’s previous experience was 40-plus years old, as a boy assisting a father who was also learning on the job. A lot has changed in 40 years, regarding herd management. There are more regulations and bookkeeping, new techniques, and more interest in welfare issues. And D’s experience was with North Country Cheviots, a common breed here, while our flock is made up of Hebrideans, a very different breed in body and temperament. So it’s not surprising that the one with no experience and the one with childhood experience have clashed at times, learning about each other, how to argue, how to get things done anyway in the midst of an argument (sheep won’t wait), how to make up and learn from that argument. Where our strengths and weaknesses are, our natural talents, our breaking points. The school of life and love play out daily on our farm, and much of it in the sheep shelter.
Hebs are a small native breed, very intelligent and ‘athletic’, as someone warned us when we were considering them. We can attest to that, having watched them jump to freedom under and over –and through – our equipment and us. For the public record, in case I’m ever taken to hospital, and a nurse makes a police report about all the bruise on my body: D didn’t give them to me. Hebs lambs are adorable, but their horns can be sharp.
But Hebs also have a reputation for birthing without problems and not needing a lot of attention to their feet. They’re hill sheep, and ‘can take care of themselves’, often grazing for entire summers in the wild uplands of the Highlands and Islands. They have wide hips and ‘lamb themselves’ … they are ‘low maintenance’. Or so we were told. First lesson learned: what people say a breed needs, and what the breed actually needs, aren’t necessarily the same. I think there’s a small corner of hell reserved for people who use ‘can take care of themselves’ to neglect an animal, woolly or otherwise.
Our first batch of sheep, 12 ewes and a ram, came to us in lieu of payment for work D did for an old colleague across the glen. This Shepard (and I use the word loosely for him, as his flock seems rather an afterthought among his many other projects) was an advocate of the idea that Hebs take care of themselves: our batch came to us unvaccinated, with pocketed, ragged feet that had probably never been trimmed. (Second lesson learned: always check the feet of any sheep you are considering for purchase or trade.) The ram had never been tagged, one of the ewes had an infected ear and a bald back, and another had a crooked horn growing into her cheek. The ewes and rams had lived together on open land, the owner counting on the breed’s reputation for only becoming fertile late in the fall, to keep from having lambs at all times of the year. And we doubt if he stayed up nights during lambing season, depending instead on the theory that they ‘lamb themselves’, and counting casualties as par for the farming course. When they arrived at our farm, we didn’t know who was pregnant and who wasn’t. In the end, the ram was never tagged, as he was ‘liberated’ from our field about a month after arrival and was never seen again (ram rustling isn’t unusual in the isolated parts of the countryside, especially during breeding – or ”tupping” – season. The ewe’s ear and back healed, the horn was trimmed and all the ewes had lambs this spring. After a year of regular foot treatments, everyone’s walking well, although some of their feet still need a bit of work. We bought a lock for the gate, another four (pedigree, pregnant) ewes and a couple of fresh rams this spring (also with ‘low maintenance’ feet issues), and a year after going into the sheep business with 13 animals, we are approaching our sheparding anniversary on 30 October with a healthy, well trained herd of 38. All the lambs survived but one, which is remarkable considering that these ewes, supposedly able to ‘lamb themselves’ had a collection of problems that would’ve been great as exercises in a training program, but were challenging – to say the least – for newbies like us. Our very first birth needed help with her second lamb (you haven’t lived until you’ve had your hand up a sheep’s jacksie, trying to tell the difference between an unborn lamb’s jaw and his hoof, covered in slime, with your partner even more panicked than you are and shouting instructions in your ear). We had ‘bottle teats’ that had to be milked until small enough again for the lamb to take in his mouth, a ewe with two lambs but only one working teat, and a mum who kept losing her lamb, standing in the middle of the field bawling for him, while he calmly looked on from where he was lying behind the hay bale. One ewe gave birth standing up, backside up against the fence, and her first lamb landed on his head and eventually was our first casualty. And now, after a busy month of fencing a new grazing area, we’ve weaned the lambs, parted the boys from the girls, and sent them out into their separate grazing areas until the next big event: tupping time, when the ram is put to the ewes, and the whole cycle of supplemental feeding, worry, and eventual lambing starts again.
And all this has gone on whie harvesting our hay – our second harvest together – ploughing and planting two new fields with kale and turnips, replanting those same fields after the worst infestation of Diamond-backed moths in the UK since the 90’s, making a semi-attempt at a vegetable garden, caring for D’s 96-old mum, applying for our first EU farm subsidy, building and repairing fencing all around the farm, and doing the occasional paid gig in our respective non-farming fields – because the sheep don’t pay for themselves. Yet. There was no time for paying any attention to the remnants of my theatre career, and I only been off the farm overnight twice since I moved onto it. In short, a typical year in the life of a farmer, which I can now say I am without hesitation.
So yes, a busy year indeed. And yes, a steep learning curve on many levels, for humans and animals alike. We’ve learned how to live and work together at the same time that D and I were learning to be a couple and to be farmers/shepherds. And though it would be a mistake to forget that each of those learning areas have their own demands and lessons, they are all inextricably interwoven. And therein lie many stories, and the best and deepest lessons.
Our approach to farming is an evolving process. We don’t get up at the crack of dawn, as other farmers do. We often don’t have dinner until 9pm, and our last visit to Mum isn’t until 10pm, so by the time we’ve settled in, it’s often after midnight before we have lights out. After a lot of agitation on my part, based on my preconceptions and guilt, I thought: who cares? Not D, and not the sheep, and nobody else matters. There might have to be some adjustments after the chickens arrive next year, but until then, after years of late nights and early risings for our ‘day jobs’, we’ve decided to take advantage of being a bit older, wiser…and lazier. We make up for it often enough during harvest and lambing, when working in the field until it’s too dark to see, and 2am checks on expectant mums, are the norm. And we don’t manage our sheep strictly according to common practice, either.
Oh, we use the prescribed treatments and feed. We read all the instruction manuals, follow the recommended codes of practise whenever possible, and regularly seek advice from our more experienced fellows. Wherever it matters on a practical matter, we’re pretty standard. It’s the emotional side of it all where we deviate.
You’re not supposed to fall in love with your sheep. They’re supposed to be a ‘crop’, kept for their meat and their wool, then sold on or butchered when they’ve outlived their usefulness. You’re certainly not supposed to name them (we’ve named them all), or work too hard to save the weak ones (we nursed six months of hope for Gimpy before he died). You’re not supposed to turn them into ‘pets’.
But we are who we are. We love our sheep. We know most of them personally, and their names all reflect some trait unique to that particular sheep. Hookie is named for her crooked horn, and is starting to trust us enough to take a treat from our hands. Missy’s ear was infected when she came to us, so we cut her tag out and dosed her up. And she had a bald patch on her back, so she needed some attention there too. Already one of the more feral ones, being handled didn’t endear her to us, but over the months she’s calmed…and will now wait expectantly at back of the bunch for you to toss her a treat. She’s this close to taking one out of my hands…and her wool is growing in nicely since this year’s shearing. Tamara, named for a dearly missed friend of mine, is the only adult ewe who will let us give her some loving, in fact, she demands it. Donald and Aiden, father and son, are so close and affectionate with each other that we worry about how they will react when we separate them to take Donald to the ladies this November….Agnes could be a puppy, the way she follows us around, not so much for the treats as for the belly scratches. They are all fat and happy, just as they should be at this time of year, going into winter. And it makes us happy to. Really happy, not just pleased that the ‘crop’ is doing well. And after all, why not?
All of the girls from this initial batch will stay with us until the end of their lives. We’ve made that commitment to them and ourselves. They’re our starter herd, and will get an easy retirement in return for being the foundation for the generations of lambs that will be born here. And since Hebs are smaller and slower growing than sheep traditionally bred for their meat, the male lambs will stay with us for 18 months, rather than the usual 6, before they go to market. The female lambs will join our older ladies in the permanent flock until we reach maximum capacity for our acreage, then they’ll be on an 18 month schedule. Donald and Aiden … well we haven’t figured out what we’ll do with them once we used them as much as possible for breeders. But if they keep on being so good at herding the young boys, they may have careers into their dotage. Hebs are smart, funny, affectionate creatures, and if we’re all going to live together for these varying lengths of time, why not enjoy ourselves and each other? They like a scratch, and we like to give it. We’ve trained them to come to our call, one step beyond ‘bucket training’, so we don’t have to chase them down in the far fields and lead them home – in fact, you’ll sometimes catch us ducking out of sight, so they don’t see us and run home too early in the day. Yes, they know that if they come they’ll get food…but some of them also know that if they come, they’ll get their bellies scratched. Whatever works, right? And they don’t panic so much when we have to work on their feet, or give them injections… all of us having a bit of affection for each other makes everything so much easier. Sure, it also means we’ll cry our eyes out when we take the boys, and eventually the girls, to market, and I sobbed over poor wee Gimpy’s body when I found him lying cold in the grass this week. Then sobbed again with D, when I gave him the news. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Because we’ve realized a couple of things, besides the fact that we just can’t help ourselves – we are who we are, after all. One is that, if we were to force ourselves to keep distance, to not enjoy the sheep like we do…they’d just become another job, here on the farm. And there’s already work aplenty – why create more? It’s already hard enough to get out of bed to give them their feed on a cold winter’s morning. Think how much harder it’d be if we didn’t have that time with them, sharing out treats and scratching bellies?
But here’s the real lesson, I think: we thought keeping emotional distance from, and not falling in love with, our sheep was the sign of a professional. That folks would laugh at our amateur ways if they knew how we were with them. But besides finding out that others are just like us, no matter the common advice, one day it struck me: people say ‘don’t fall in love’ with your sheep, for the same reason they say it about people. They’re scared. (Okay, my word was chicken-shit, but that’s my old, harder roots showing.) There’s nothing but good in loving your sheep – you’ll take better care of them, spoil them a little – it’s the humans that are at risk.
Folk are afraid they’ll be heartbroken when it’s time to go to market, or when a lamb dies. That’s it. Nothing to do with ‘professional’, and everything to do with fear of a broken heart. When I realized that, I realized: farming is just like life. If you give your heart to it, your heart might get broken. And then I thought: so what? Let it break. Because what other choice do we have, being who we are? To close down, push them away and into the ‘produce’ box? It’s simply not an option for us. After all, if we were predisposed to doing that with our hearts…we wouldn’t even be here together. We’re both on the far side of fifty, with three divorces between us, and plenty of heartbreak. If we were the sort to take those experiences as lessons in building walls around our hearts…well, suffice it to say I’d never have come up to this little hill farm to be with him, and he’d never have said yes when I proposed to him last month.
So this is who we are, and this is the lesson we’ve learned: love. Love with all the heart you have, and go ahead and cry when it breaks. It will mend, if you let it, and then you will love again. Sheep, people, dogs, each other. There may be chickens on this farm one day…but there are no chicken shits. Well, there will be shit. There’s always shit….and mud and midges. And love. Always love.
We wouldn’t have it any other way. Okay, fewer midges would be nice.