All for the want of a horseshoe nail (or cylinder head gasket)…

The sheep in the stable. Betty is the Scottish Blackface at the front (with horns). The other sheep at the front is Raeburn, leader of the flock.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted. During that time, the delicate balance between managing the holding and chaos was tipped out of alignment by the tractor. Our tractor is not a glamorous modern machine – we neither need nor can afford such a thing. Instead it is a 30-year-old rust bucket, utterly unglamorous, but wholly essential to the current set-up on the holding.

One day, it refused to start. Charlie, the very nice mechanic came up and got it going, and we were instructed to run it for 40 minutes to restore the battery. This clearly tipped something over the edge because, the next time we used it, water and steam shot out of the radiator cap.

A new radiator cap didn’t help and meanwhile the sheep were down the field with minimal grass in the cold, wet autumn weather, were losing condition hand over fist, which was especially bad as we were days away from sending some of the male lambs to the abbatoir, and we couldn’t drive a new big swiss roll bale of haylage down to them. In desperation, I started to barrow haylage down the field, barrow after barrow, at least ten each day, down through the ankle-deep mud outside the barn, which the tractor should have scooped up and cleared away, through the mud at the field entrance and into the ring feeder, where the starving sheep fell upon it with evident desperation. But ten wheelbarrows of hay do not go far between 20 sheep and 14 lambs and we grew increasingly worried.

Back came Charlie, who looked gloomy and said it was the cylinder head gasket and that water had got into the oil and oh dear. Much angst and discussion and we agreed that the only thing to do was to send the tractor away to be repaired and cope with the huge bill somehow – but the tractor repairers could not take the tractor until after the weekend and things were getting worse down the field.

Saturday morning was going quite well – it had stopped raining and there was even a little sunshine – until I came round the corner and looked down the field. The sheep were standing about the empty ring feeder, save one lamb who lay suspiciously still by the fence. I scrambled over the gate and hurried down the field. I was too late. The lamb was dead – and not just any lamb. Branwen, the fourth generation of her much-loved family, a lamb promised a place in the permanent flock. Our hearts cracked but weeping would change nothing. We had to act.

Branwen had been scouring (the runs) and so were several of the other lambs. It was too late for her but we could save others. We ditched everything else planned for Saturday – the sheep needed emergency action. We collected Combinex (against liver fluke and worms) and orange spray to identify which sheep we had treated, set up feed in the stable and called the flock in. Up the ewes charged, knowing that “cake” (sheep muesli) awaited them – but the lambs hung back. Young lambs aren’t that interested in cake so they had not yet learned that this was a delicious and important treat. It was essential that the lambs were treated so down the field I went in my role of sheepdog, wishing yet again that we had an actual sheepdog. Back and forth I ran as I coaxed the lambs into one bunch and moved them up the field but they would just not go through the gate. Again and again I pushed them forward, only to have to run like hell through the slippery muddy ground to head off breakaways to the side or down the field. I was just about to give up when Benedicta ambled through the gate. Benedicta is an old ewe, very wild, who came to us as a rescue case. This year she moved out of the field to live in the outer bailey and Dutch barn with Martha, two older ladies who didn’t fancy the extra walking in the field. Benedicta saw me, didn’t like what she saw, and ambled out of the field – and the lambs all followed a grown-up. We were saved!

After that, it was the usual tedious business of catching sheep and dosing them. Many farms and smallholdings have a sheep crush – a long narrow run into which you push the sheep to treat them – but we don’t. So each individual had to be separately run after, caught either by the horns or by slipping a lead rope loosely round their neck, backed into a corner to reduce escape options, dosed with Combinex, which looks very like milk of magnesia, sprayed orange across the shoulders and released. Our sheep know me well, they know neither Rosemary nor I would harm them – but sheep panic first and think later, so even the tamest sheep gave me the runaround, leapt in the air, charged straight through me or took other evasive action, only to stand there after they were dosed and sprayed with an air of “is that all?”

Each lamb’s weight was assessed and, as we feared, none had enough flesh to make them worth slaughtering. This may sound harsh but it is part of the reality of smallholding – on any acreage, you can only support limited numbers of grazing animals and a short trip to the abbatoir after a happy and cared for life is at the better end of the spectrum for livestock and very similar to the fate of the creatures who become the meat you buy at the supermarket.

Instead of turning the sheep down the field again, we decided to put them into the Dutch barn weeks earlier than usual. I staggered off down the field to carry the ring feeder back up (another job that would be no work at all for the tractor but was heavy and awkward for a mere human) and we set the two ring feeders up in the barn, building them round haylage bales before releasing the rejoicing sheep into a nice warm, dry Dutch barn full of haylage.

Some of the lambs were so scrawny and weak that even competing for food at the ring feeders would have been too much for them so we set them up in a pen with food, water and an older ewe who also needed feeding up. “Set them up” is a euphemism – I caught each lamb and staggered round from stable to pen carrying them, their legs facing outwards and waving with indignation as they writhed in my arms. As for Betty, I dragged her bodily as she resisted every step, convinced like any sheep that Death awaited – only to find that her fate was a nice warm pen and a de luxe dinner.

As for Rosemary and me, we staggered off into the house after five hours of hard work, collapsed into our chairs with a cup of tea and started to count the days until the return of the tractor and a slightly easier life.

5 thoughts on “All for the want of a horseshoe nail (or cylinder head gasket)…

    1. Thank you. The scale of smallholding means that we know each animal as an individual, which makes successes and failures more intense.

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