“How did the sheep drive go?” Sue asks.
Her husband Gordon who is my second cousin, their sons Tony and Ian, Ian’s four-year-old son Will, my nine-year-old daughter Meg, and I have just come back from driving 57 sheep from a distant field to the barn in preparation for them going off to market the next morning.
I’m still out of breath; most of the drive took place at a run or a very fast walk, and some of it was uphill. And, the sheep got away from us twice in the fields, then several times they poured over a wall into the adjoining fields, and once a few broke away and went into the holly wood before deciding to relent and rejoin the rest of the flock.
“We lost them twice,” I tell Sue at the same time that Gordon says, “Easy.”
I guess losing them twice is a picnic compared to what can happen. And oh my God, they are fast. At least they’re not scary, like cows or bulls can be when they decide to charge in your direction. With cows and bulls, you run out of the way to avoid possible injury; with sheep you stand your ground and hoist any small people to safety as a river of determined and demented-looking puffballs streams past.
Some people don’t think that cows are very smart, but compared to sheep, cows are Einsteins. Sheep aren’t the brightest animals on the farm. They have a real herd instinct; once one or two of them start running, soon the entire herd will go, and almost never in the direction you want them to.
An hour earlier the six of us had crammed into the Land Rover and Gordon drove us to the field over the crest of the hillside where these sheep were grazing. He handed each of us a large empty plastic feed bag to use to make noise to frighten the sheep, and opened the gate to the field. We walked around the edges of the field to get behind the herd. They watched us suspiciously with their flat yellow eyes.
Spreading out in a line, we walked towards the sheep, hoping they’d move away from us and in the direction we wanted them to go.
For a while they did, then they turned and directly at us. Ian grabbed young Will and hoisted him onto his shoulders as the sheep streamed past and ran to the furthest end of the field.
We tried again, crossing the field to the far side, walking silently past the sheep then turning and making noise with the bags.
It looked as if we were about to be successful, then just as they reached the open gate they again turned back and charged through us, and we had to do it all over again.
This third time they reached the open gate, a couple of sheep filed through, and a couple more, and then they were all going through. Right about now I’m blessing the stupidity of sheep because at least they’re on the move in the right direction and I don’t have to expend any more energy getting them out of this first field.
We drove them across a field with an old windmill; the field was ploughed and sown with barley. Following in the wake of the sheep, I allowed myself to scan the ground for old Roman or English coins. Sue has an English coin from 1604, and lots of shot from when Cromwell passed through in the 1660s, given to her by a man using a metal detector whom she allowed to search their fields. Any “treasures” that are “found” are, under English law, to be split between the owner of the land and the person finding them. The largest Saxon hoard of 3,500 items of gold and silver was found in Staffordshire, a county bordering Derbyshire, and every day ancient items turn up in this history-rich country.
–A Jacobean coin and material shot from guns during Cromwell’s time.
We’re now running uphill behind the sheep, and I’m getting really winded. Gordon goes to the Land Rover, and Will gets in while the rest of us proceed on foot.
Closer to the farm, the sheep again make a dash for it over an adjoining wall. Sheep are murder on the stone walls; if there’s a low spot, they’ll make it even lower as they dislodge stones that have remained here for 200 years; without the ministrations of the sheep and other hazards, the walls could last another 200 years.
Several sheep jump over the wall into the holly wood. I groan, thinking it’ll be so difficult to chase them through the dark prickly wood, but then they reconsider when it becomes apparent that most of the flock is heading through the field. The miscreants turn around, clamber back over the wall towards us, and off we go.
The sheep ford a stream near the farmhouse, water splashing up their legs and bellies, and we’re in the home stretch. They charge up the lane by the barn and are caught against a metal gate, right where we need them to be. Gordon quickly closes another gate behind them, and they’re trapped.
Gordon, Tony, and Ian join the sheep in the enclosure. There’s still dagging and hoof-trimming to do.
All of the sheep have their thick winter coats on; they also have a winter’s-worth of sheep manure hanging off the wool near their rear ends. If there’s a lot of muck on these sheep, Gordon will not get as good a price for them at market, so he and Ian set to work shearing it off. They refer to this as “dagging”; Gordon thinks this term has come from Australia. My mother suggests that this term stands for “dirty and grotty.”
Gordon and Ian try to single out a sheep. His hands deep in the wool around the sheep’s shoulders, Gordon grabs it and backs it into a corner. Ian uses the electric sheep-shears to cut off the muck-encrusted wool near the sheep’s bottom, and a mix of wool and manure falls to the ground. The dagging takes anywhere from three to five minutes per sheep, and there are 57 of them.
Meanwhile, Tony is trimming the hoofs of two of the sheep that have been limping; occasionally sheep’s hoofs will grow irregularly so one is longer than another, which causes them to limp. Sheep that limp command lower prices in the market, so Tony pulls the sheep backwards against his legs and goes to work.
So far, seven sheep have their bottoms sheared; one has had its hooves trimmed. A cup of tea is on order for all the sheep-drovers, then it’s back to work for Gordon, Tony, and Ian; 50 more sheep to prepare for market and another couple more hours of work. Who knew so much was involved in even this small part of getting a sheep to market?