Hamish is the stock agent who grazes his sheep and cattle in our paddocks. “You’ll see lambs out there in the spring,” he added.
Hamish and I were standing at the fence, looking out at his 30 or so ewes that were grazing in our olive grove at the time. Hamish has a friendly smile, but he says very little. “Hopefully we’ll have heaps,” he added. Then he nodded and walked away.
We’d never had lambs in our own paddocks before, and we couldn’t wait.
When the ram showed up in the olive grove, it wasn’t at all what I had imagined. Perhaps I grew up with too many American car commercials. “Dodge trucks are ram tough!” I expected a bulky and formidable beast with thick, curled horns on top of a massive head. Like the Ram Truck logo, of course.
But this ram was tiny. He was no bigger than the ewes, maybe even smaller. He had a narrow, almost delicate black face and absolutely no horns at all. Nothing. Not even little bumps.
He looked like a some kind of dainty eunuch, while I had been expecting the sheep equivalent of a moustachioed, gold-chain wearing, macho man. Was this frail creature really up to the task? I mean, there were 30 ewes!
For the next couple weeks, that little ram ran around in a state of non-stop euphoria. He was shameless. Just about every time anyone walked through the olive grove, the ram had his glory out at full mast for all to see. He went after this ewe, then that. I seriously considered hand-painting an ‘adults only’ sign on an old board and nailing it to olive grove gate.
After a month of this, the ram looked very, very tired. He’d developed a debilitating limp and could no longer keep up with his harem of ewes (who by then had quite enough of him, thank you very much).
Then Hamish took him away. I’m not sure what became of the ram, but his job was done. If he went off to the slaughterhouse to meet his maker, I’m sure it was with a very large smile on his face.
Getting the sheep out of the olive grove
In March we asked Hamish to clear the sheep out of the grove in preparation for the June olive harvest.
Grazing sheep in olive groves is a centuries-old tradition. It means you don’t need nasty defoliants to kill the grass around the trees, which many modern groves use, and you don’t need to waste gasoline to power a tractor for mowing between the rows. The sheep manure also helps to fertilize the soil. However, there is one catch. Sheep pellets are just about the size, shape, and color of ripe olives.
When you harvest olives by hand, you rake them down to the ground on nets. Imagine the hazard. One little sheep poo rolling onto a harvest net and your olive oil tastes like, well, you guessed it.
So, if you keep sheep in your olive grove, you have to get them out several months before you harvest. You need time for the sheep manure to rot down and disintegrate.
That’s why we had Hamish move the 30 pregnant ewes to the bottom paddock.
The gestation period for sheep is about 5 months, and whenever we walked to the river we checked in on them. Under all that wool, it was hard to tell how pregnant they were. They all just looked like fat, woolly sheep to CJ and me.
Then, at the beginning of August, when the olive harvest was done and spring was just around the corner, I got home from work in the dark one Friday night to find that CJ – who stays home on Fridays – had good news. “The lambs have started coming,” he said.
But he had some bad news as well. “One mom is dying.”
One of the pregnant ewes had been lying in the same spot all day. Earlier that afternoon, CJ had gone down to check on her. She was breathing heavily, and CJ said you could hear her grinding her teeth. She was clearly in a lot of pain. There was no sign of any lamb coming out.
CJ had called Hamish, but Hamish was busy lambing with another flock. “I’ll come first thing in the morning,” he said.
CJ felt helpless, and when I got home, so did I.
Early the next morning I saw Hamish out in the paddocks, digging. He was burying the poor ewe. Her baby was breech, and still inside her. Now there’s a small mound in the paddock where the dead, pregnant sheep carcass is rotting. Farming is a brutal business.
Mothers reject their young
That day we noticed that another ewe was pushing away her newborn lamb every time it tried to suckle. If a lamb is rejected, it starves. Our neighbor John had told us what clever farmers do in such cases.
If one mother has rejected her baby, and another mother’s baby has died, they immediately skin the dead baby lamb. They take the lambskin and tie it on top of the living, rejected, baby.
Then they put the ‘baby in disguise’ in an isolated pen with the mother whose baby has died. She smells her own baby on this new lamb, and begins to accept it as her own. She lets it suckle. When the adoptive mother and child have completely bonded, off comes the skin and they’re released into the larger paddock – happy mom and kid.
Then the mother turned and let a different baby suckle. We were surprised. The first little lamb went over to a different ewe, who let it suckle immediately. The poor little lamb had the wrong mom!
Its tail went wiggling back and forth wildly, and CJ and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Life and death
The paddocks at lambing time were an incredible place. It was literally the work of life and death, going on just outside our front door. New little baby lambs were born every day. Spots of red afterbirth dotted the grass here and there. It was horrible and it was amazing.
CJ and I always kept a respectful distance, careful never to come between mother and child. It’s also important not to pick up those adorable lambs, tempting though it may be. If you do they’ll smell too much like humans and their mothers will reject them.
Nevertheless, every chance we could we walked down to the paddocks, just to watch the little lambs leap and run and play.
A couple days ago, Hamish came back. When I rounded the corner of the garage, there he was in the stockyards with the sheep, pushing them up a ramp and into a large stock truck.
The sheep did not want to go. They tried to back up and turn around. The little lambs tried to squeeze out between the rails, and they momentarily got their heads stuck.
There was a tall man helping Hamish, and two sheep dogs barking incessantly, trying to get the sheep to move forward. Sometimes Hamish would call out to the dogs and one of the dogs would actually jump up and run across the backs of the sheep to get them to move forward into the truck.
It took a long time to get the sheep in. When they were done I talked to Hamish and the tall man. There were 55 sheep in total in the truck. The tall man had just bought them. I don’t know how long he was going to keep them before he slaughtered them all. The paddock behind us was empty.
After so much time with so much drama in our paddocks – the ram, the births, the deaths – now the long, rolling pastureland felt like a like a ghost town.
There wasn’t a sheep anywhere to be seen. The cacophony of lambs and mothers bleating at each other was gone.
Then, as I cleared the rosemary hedge and looked out into the middle paddock, I saw them. At least 8 ewes and their baby lambs, grazing silently.
Hamish hadn’t taken them all.
I smiled to myself, and the sun climbed up over the edge of the far hills.