Going with the flow

We had the Paul the vet out yesterday, to help us trim Hookie’s horn. Hookie, our Hebridean ewe named for the horn that curves down and into her cheek is one of our starter ‘muggles’, the name we’ve given to our non-pedigree sheep. She is one of those who took a little longer to trust us, after we brought her and her 11 ‘sisters’ – some of whom may actually be her sisters, though we will never know, because we don’t know her/their lineage – from the farm down the way, where they ran feral all year long.

The trimming went better than expected: Paul cut up higher than any of us were comfortable with, trying to get above the point of curvature and encourage straight new growth, and there was none of the bleeding he expected from doing so. Huge relief all around, and now we know how to do it, and safely, and will be able to care for her and her horn ourselves in the future.

Hookie isn’t one of our youngest ewes, and along with a couple of other old gals who are missing teeth or have nursing/teat related problems, would be – on many other farms – under consideration for culling: being pulled out of the herd and sent to market or the butcher. But as she’s one of the first 12 (who we’ve agreed will ‘retire’ here until the day they can’t feed properly anymore, or start to lose condition), and gives us at least one well-mothered lamb a year (so far) we will happily pull her in for a trim now and again for the next while. She gets angry with us for an hour or two afterward, but a handful of treats and a little time solves that.

Pet, with her bad feet, has a sweet temper and gives us healthy twins with the same temperament; Good natured Elly (full name Elephant – don’t ask us, we didn’t name her) has only one functioning teat, but raises sturdy twins on the single working one, and watches over her sisters’ lambs while they’re all out grazing. Even if we didn’t recognize her in the distance from her colouring and shape, we’d know her from the gaggle of lambs following along behind her. When the time comes when her teat problems outweigh her ability to raise her lamb(s), and we have to stop breeding her, she’ll make a great ‘auntie’, staying with the lambs at weaning time, so they have a surrogate mother when forced away from their own for a time (something, again, that many farms would’nt worry ). Greenal is a little less wild than she used to be, but will never be tame. But she’ll take a treat from our hands now, and gives us white lambs – throwbacks from before selective breeding, when Hebs were multi-coloured. They will give us some rare white Hebridean wool one day. Missy (named for arriving with an infected ear, requiring removal of an ear tag), has a much better fleece this year, and both ears are doing fine. The day she began trusting us enough to take a treat from our hands was a big one on our farm. She is a fantastic mother.

Every one of our starter muggles, as well as our four pedigree ewes that joined them a few months later, and the tups and their companions, have names and individual personalities or ‘skills’ that make them special. And those with problems that would get them culled on other farms, have their place and function here on the Hirsel – whether it’s giving us big strong lambs, serving as a leader in the herd (Queenie will never trust us, but she keeps the herd together like a champ), or simply helping to graze back the overabundance of broom and goat willow. We’re comfortable with our ‘softie’ approach to shepherding, as well as with the knowledge that someday, our boys will go to the butcher, as will even our most beloved old ewe. That’s life on a farm, even ours. As much as we love our animals, they are animals, they are ‘produce’, not pets. We may cry on market day – and don’t let anyone tell you we’re the only shepherds who do, we’re not that different than other farmers – but if we couldn’t stand the heat…we’d get out of the pen.

There’s a balance we’re working with on the farm: balancing practicalities, harsh realities, and the fact that we are both – though I may not show it as much as Big D does – sappy softies when it comes to much of life, in the pen or outside of it. He had me in the mud puddle we call the frog pond (because it will be a proper pond one day) rescuing frogs on the day he was terraforming the ground around the pond, in order to flatten it and put up our wedding tent. And I, without question, was out there floundering around in the mud, chasing frogs for the first time since I was a child.

How do we keep that balance? And why this long diversion about how much we love our sheep? What does it have to do with trimming Hookie’s horn?

Well, yesterday, while Paul was here, he and Big D were having a wee blether about the flock, and the fact that they are still coming in to the lambing field at night. Paul asked if we were still feeding them. Yes, we are. A few cobs in the morning, as we lead them out to the grazing – part of our ongoing ‘bucket training’ of the new generations. And a bucket of mixed grains and beet shreds when they come in at night. As we said to Paul, there will come a time when the ewes won’t feel the need to come in at night anymore – a combination of the variety of grazing that the turn of the year will be offering them, and them no longer needing the feeling of safety the lambing field offers them, with its netting and gate to keep their lambs in and predators out. The point when they stop coming to the gate, bleating to be allowed in, will coincide with us starting to ignore them if they come home too early in the day, or at all. There will come a point – hopefully sheep and shepherd will agree on when this is – when we will need to be free of the daily routine too. Then they will only come in for their monthly exam and foot care, except for when we pull this year’s lambs in for weaning, until it’s tupping time. But tupping is another tale all together.

This easy approach to encouraging their detachment from the lambing field helps us to detach from the lambs too, after the high emotions of the lambing season. It’s a little more work, but it feels right for us.

I thought of Pauls question about feeding, while walking with Big D up the eastern boundary fence this morning, where the neighbour’s bracken is trying to push into our hayfield again. Some is coming in, but not so much, and we’ll be able to handle it. This is, in large part, thanks to the fact that our neighbour’s sheep are using the path we cleared, to repair the fence, as a trail. The benefit of this is really visible further up the hill, where we pushed the gorse back from the fence. There’s a distinct path there, and we often see his sheep using it. His sheep are keep our fence line clear for us. And that is a perfect example of how we work our farm. We go with the flow – influencing it where we can, but fighting it only where we must.

When we cleared the fence line, we created a path for his sheep, who prefer taking the easy way down to their grazing at the bottom of the hill. When we take the soft approach to our sheep detaching from the lambing pen, they stay tamer, calmer, and more easily handled when we have to bring them in for treatment. When we create drainage ditches near where the water wants to flow, instead of where it would be easier for the digger to work, we have a better shot at a dry field. Taking the time to thin the overgrowth along the fence on the other side of the field, instead of taking the easier, quicker path of cutting it all down, gives us a lovely line of trees along the farm road – and a windbreak for the field. We clear some nettles, and leave some for the butterflies who help pollinate our fields. We feed the birds through the winter, and in return they live here all year round and help patrol the fields in the summer. The bog wants to be a bog – so we will not drain it for crops, but will fence it off and resuscitate the old pond at the edge of it. Later, when the waterfowl return, safe from our dog and visitors, thanks to the fence, we may build a viewpoint for bird watchers. The bird watchers may want to buy some white Hebridean wool, or stroll the rugged paths along the ditches that have twisted and turned and sprouted ferns and flowers over the years, looking more like burns, now, than ditches – though they still do the work of a ditch for us.

Easy does it, go with the flow. Water wants to flow downhill; wildlife and farm animals want a peaceful life. As do we.

I don’t know if how we’re working our little hill farm is unique to us – or to hill farms, in general. But I know it suits us. As I sit writing this, the oats and potatoes are growing in the fields; the Rams and their castrated companions (chosen for their tempers as much as for their condition and form, as their companionship will help gentle the Rams again after the testosterone laced days of tupping time) graze outside our office window; the girls and their lambs from last year and this, are out in the north grazing; and the male lambs from last year (hogs) most of whom will go to the butcher, are fossicking (as Big D calls it) in the western woods. The farm is quiet under the late spring sun…and I hear the creaking of Big D’s chair in the other room, as he shifts, trying to find a comfortable position in which to tackle his deskwork.

Desk work awaits me, too, when these musings are done. Because desk work is a bigger part of farming than my city-self had ever imagined. But that’s part of the flow too, and it’s nice to be inside, in a dim cool office, on a hot day; that, too, is part of the flow of life on The Hirsel. Of life itself, I’m guessing. At least: the life that brought us here, to our little hill farm in the Highlands, where we’re learning to go with the flow.



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