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Shepherd’s Calendar

“We are as gods to beasts of the field. We order the time of their birth and the time of their death. Between times, we have a duty.” — Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

It’s time to start building lambing jugs, which despite the name are not actually jugs. They’re small pens, in which a ewe gives birth and is confined for a few days with her new lambs, so that they’ll bond and the shepherd can monitor them all to make sure both mother and lambs are healthy. I don’t really expect the Soays to need them, you don’t survive for a couple thousand years on a tiny rock in the North Sea, the farthest west of any of the Outer Hebrides, because you have a tendency to forget you gave birth and wander off without your lamb. But there’s Ella the American Blackbelly sheep and Mabel the Southdown ewe, both of which are more modern breeds that may require some assistance in remembering that yes, this small bleating woolly thing belongs to them and requires their care.

A small rocky island formed from the tip of an ancient mountain rises from the North Sea. Its sides are steep and its top is wreathed in mist. There's a carpet of grass, but no shelter to be seen.
Inselsoay” by Olaf1950Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The Soay Island that Soay sheep come from. When you were bred to survive a rock in the North Sea, Virginia weather is laughably mild and you tend to remember that you gave birth.

Lambs should start arriving in February, if Ferrington has done his job. I was slightly worried at first that he was incapable, since I’m used to goats and let me tell you, male goats make sure you know that they have a penis and like to use it. More experienced shepherds have reassured me that rams are much shyer creatures, preferring to woo the ladies at night when no inquisitive shepherd is around to watch. Unlike goat bucks, rams also don’t pee all over their own faces to make themselves attractive to the ladies, and in the absence of another ram with whom to have junk-measuring contests, you may never actually see a ram’s reproductive apparatus beyond his enormous, dangling testicles. The more you know.

But I digress. The lambing jugs will be built in the barn, so that ewes and lambs are sheltered from the occasional winter storm. Adult sheep are extremely weather resistant and the Soays honestly barely seem to notice rain unless it’s absurdly heavy, but lambs are small and their surface area to volume ratio is much more conducive to hypothermia than it is for adult sheep, even with their woolly fleeces to keep them warm. While some shepherds with breeds and flocks selected for being excellent mothers choose to let ewes lamb in the fields, I’m more conservative, especially since this is the first time for both me and the ewes. I’ve handled goat births no problem, but sheep are startlingly different animals for all that they and goats are nearly indistinguishable skeletally. And I have a duty.

Every sheep is more than a sheep; it is all the sheep it has ever been, and everything we have done to them, and everything they have done for us. — Elodie Under Glass

After lambing, round about April or so, comes rooing the hair sheep and shearing the wool sheep. Rooing a sheep means simply to round it up and pluck the shedding wool from it so that humans can use the wool, rather than leaving the sheep to scratch the wool off on trees and the barn. In the days when Soay sheep were the cutting edge of farming, rooing would have been a social affair: the sheep would have been rounded up in their winter pastures and brought down to pens near villages, and everyone would get together and have a fine time plucking sheep. At the end, the newly naked-er sheep would have been taken to their spring pastures, and village life would have moved on to planting.

Rooing is surprisingly hard work, mostly because you have to catch the sheep and set it on its butt (which causes sheep to relax and go immobile) and then pluck, and pluck, and pluck, pausing to stash your precious handfulls of wool in sacks. Do it too early and you’ll be doing it all over again later, do it too late and you’ll be scavenging wool from tree branches, fence posts, and the sides of your barn and hay feeder. Shearing is much more convenient, at least for the shepherd, because timing isn’t so very important. Gather up the sheep, shave them bald, and call it good and move on to processing the fleece. When you need privacy fencing, you can go to https://www.longfence.com/residential/fence/privacy-fence for more details.

Damp weather shows off crimp and increasing length of beautiful red-brown Soay fleece.
At least the Soays are small, so rooing them will be much faster than Ella and Tyson.

Every man can tell how many goats or sheep he possesses, but not how many friends. — Marcus Tullius Cicero

In summer the spring lambs are reaching the age where they’re old enough to be sold. Sometime in June, Ferrington’s sons will hopefully head off to spread their genetics into new herds of Soays, preserving the gift of DNA that ancient shepherds left for us on the small rocky island in the North Sea. Ferrington himself will also be seeking a new herd, as his daughters will remain here to build my own little flock of Soays. I’ll exchange him for a ram as unrelated to my ewes as I can manage to find. The Soay cross lambs from Mabel and Ella, on the other hand, will stay here and get fat on pasture and hay. In summer one or two of them will probably be slaughtered for the table and to keep the load on our pastures low. The rest will eat, and may be offered to one or two shepherds who want to experiment with adding Soay blood to their flocks. Honestly, it depends on whether I need cash or meat more.

And then a few months later, at the start of fall, the remaining extraneous lambs (including any of Ferrington’s sons that didn’t head for new homes) will go to slaughter, as we pare down the flock to only the animals we want to support over the winter. Hay costs double with cold weather and a lack of pasture, so it’s important to keep flock size to something supportable. And thanks to the growing demand for local food, there’s good odds that I can manage to sell some of the meat provided I can afford to use a USDA inspected slaughter-house.

Meanwhile, the young ewes will be separated so that they don’t get pregnant too young, the older ewes will begin cycling and growing in their wool, and the entire calendar swings back to the beginning, with the exception of lambing jugs already being built.

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Let me just wax lyrical for a bit…

Sometimes, at night, I go sit outside and look at my sheep. I generally take a length of acrylic fleece to use as a shepherd’s plaid what with I haven’t had the chance to make one from my sheep. Maybe in 2017. There is something magical about nights at the onset of winter here in the Piedmont, when the cold breaks the hazy humidity of summer. There’s so many stars in the sky, and if I trouble myself to go out back of the barn on a moonless night where the glare from our “safety light” doesn’t reach, I can see the Milky Way.

Anyway. I sit, wrapped in my fleece, and I watch my sheep sleep with Xita beside me. It’s magical. Times like that, you can almost feel a kinship with pre-industrial shepherds. Indeed, when it’s just the Soays out sleeping next to the hay bale, I can almost feel the first Neolithic shepherds beside me. THey’d probably appreciate modern touches like acrylic fleece and my very fine German Shepherd. Some things have changed very little over the millenia, and shepherds and farmers appreciate a good dog and warm, durable fabric.

It’s on nights like that as much as on slaughter days that I remember why I have animals, why I eat the meat they produce and take their manure to grow vegetables. It’s a very fundamental connection to the land and to the past that nourishes the soul along with the body.

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Welcome, lagomorphs

I mentioned in my last post that we added rabbits to the Manor this past summer. The rabbits are here to provide meat, hides, and high-quality fertilizer. Currently we have two does (female rabbits) and one buck (male rabbit — very handy that these are the same terms used for goats) living in a colony set up that was formerly used for chicken grow out or breeding pens.

We added the rabbits because I wanted a more reliable source of protein than chickens are under our current flock management plan, which is to let them free range and do their thing and raise babies when they feel like it. It’s cheap since they rustle up most of their own food, it significantly reduces the time required to care for them, and it provides the chickens with a much better quality of life than they’d have locked in a run, but it’s not really conducive to putting chicken dinners on the table. It’s actually reduced our egg output, in that now we have to hunt to find where they’re laying the damn things, but not so much as to make us end the great free range experiment.

Therefore, rabbits. The two does are a Flemish Giant named Yeine and a New Zealand/Standard Rex cross named Tegwen. The buck is another New Zealand/Rex cross named Nahadoth. Thus far they’ve put one litter of rabbits on the ground — we lost another litter when I made the ill-advised decision to integrate Tegwen without investigating Yeine’s pregnancy status first. So there are still wrinkles to be ironed out, but over all things are going well. I even managed to process the first batch, when I was deeply worried that I’d be unable to kill something as cute as a rabbit.

It helps that they’re delicious. After weaning we finish them on pasture with a supplement of pelleted food because at this time of year, forage is minimal. The meat is similar to chicken but with a richer taste than even our free-range birds have.

Best of all, during the months when forage is plentiful, they require very minimal food input from us. I cut weeds and grasses for the breeding adults, and the grow outs awaiting slaughter live in a lightweight pen we can move from place to place to allow them to graze. Along the way, they leave a trail of rabbit manure to enrich the soil. Given that a previous property owner scraped up all the topsoil off most of the property and sold it, the grow outs are performing an incredibly valuable service as we tractor them around the area between the goat pens.

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Dealing with Unexpected Thanksgiving Guests

I almost forgot to tell y’all this story. On Thanksgiving Day the husband and I went out to do the chores in the morning and discovered two black vultures had locked themselves in our chicken pen.

The chicken pen is normally left open at all times so that the poultry who sleep there can get in and out to free range at will. The day before Thanksgiving had been cold and drizzly, and we’d tossed some leftovers into the pen so the chickens and guinea fowl could get a good meal and stay dry. Among the leftovers was a chicken carcass, which is probably why we ended up with a pair of vultures.

They were beautiful and by far the calmest of the birds who have gotten trapped in our chicken pen. Once a juvenile Coopers Hawk got in there and couldn’t get out because our three game roosters were taking turns beating the crap out of him. Another time a crow got in and then, despite the vaunted intelligence of corvids, couldn’t figure out how to go out the door he’d just come in. Both the hawk and the crow were upset and panicking, although admittedly the poor hawk had reason to panic what with the roosters trying to kill him.

The vultures on the other hand were very mellow. They didn’t get upset until we got within about eight feet of them. The rest of the time they hung out, preening and exploring and pecking things. We opened the door for them and left them to it, and they continued to hang out on the ground right next to the open door. They preened, they took dust baths, they pecked at the empty feeder. I was starting to feel guilty because here it was Thanksgiving and they’d been locked in all night and might be hungry, so I found them the rib cage of a rabbit carcass we’d roasted and tossed it in to them. They thought food delivery was pretty good.

A few hours later, however, their idyll came to an end when our flock of guinea fowl discovered them and ran them out of the pen. Six guinea fowl are, apparently, able to terrify two young vultures into submission. Who knew?

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Happy Independence Day!

I am still in England. In fact, today I am meeting my future in-laws, and I believe there are plans to see Malmesbury Abbey.

Hope you’re having a good 4th of July (if you live in the USA!)

Oh, heck, I hope you have a good day even if it doesn’t include fireworks.

If you’re wondering what I think about when the Usual Suspects aren’t running me ragged, I believe S. E. Smith over at This Ain’t Livin is running a guest post I wrote on the immigration process today.

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Lady of the Manor 2, Road 0

I had to run some errands this morning as the Manor was in desperate need of resupply; I was running low on food for the Manor Cats, and was completely out of dog food. Oh, plus I needed food for myself. So off I went, and first had to stop to herd a black snake out of the road, and then an Eastern Box Turtle darted out in front of me, so I stopped and helped him on his way. Unfortunately conditions weren’t safe for photos, he was a lovely dark reddish orange.

Having done my good deeds for the day I choogled off to Tractor Supply Co, the grocery store, and the local feed store, where I picked up food for all and sundry plus Frontline for the Manor Cats, or at least the three little girls who let me handle them. So far I’ve gotten Emmaline, I’ll have to wait on Noodlehead and then seduce Briar Rose (formerly SisterTwo) into letting me goo her later.

I also picked up kitten-feeding supplies on the principle that I know how cats are, and if I don’t have kitten-feeding supplies on hand, then one of them will be a total bastard and deposit neonatal kittens on my doorstep. Probably on a Sunday night, leaving me with no choice but to take a box of kittens to work with me on Monday so I can feed them every two hours while I look for someone who can foster them. Cats are mean like that.

And now, having been productive, I think I’m going to eat lunch and then settle in on the futon with dogs to watch a zombie movie.