I began keeping sheep as pets because I had almost four acres of very hilly pasture studded with trees and bushes. Even a tractor struggled to mow it and very few of the farmers thought it worth their while to try.
The previous owners of our property had tackled the pasture using a quad bike with a mower attachment, but they also kept big horses that could eat grass year round, while my native cob and her small pony friend were on restricted grazing more often than not. While the ponies’ patch of allowed grass was eaten down to stub, the rest of the field grew wild with coarse, stemmy grass, docks, nettles, buttercups and other weeds. By the edges of the stream that flows weakly along one side, bull rushes grew on the bank beneath a growing crop of blackberry bushes. Trees became choked by ivy and prolific, flowering vines. The ancient Perry tree dropped its fruit in autumn where it rotted, killing a circle of grass that was replaced in spring with fresh weeds.
Occasionally, I’d venture out with my favourite gardening tool—an Austrian scythe—and mow down bind weed and thistles and stinging nettles as high as my head. Or I’d get out a petrol-powered strimmer and knock back the thickening brambles. A circumference of mad growth widened around the trees and bushes with every season until a jungle of thorny vines crowded out all but the most intrepid gardener.
Along the borders, branches pushed against the fence lines, the woods threatening to push in. Come winter, the ponies nibbled on the long, browning grass that bent over new growth, but it wasn’t a satisfactory solution. The hillsides gathered a greater number of docks and thistles, growing impervious to my scythe. Herbicides could sicken the plants, making them droop yellow and brown where they stood, but they did nothing to decrease the numbers come spring, and something in me became unwilling to poison the land I’d volunteered to care for.
The farmers laughed at me when I suggested they could use my land for their lambs through the summer. Four acres turned out to be either four too few or four too many—it wasn’t worth their while to keep lambs on such grass and, by the way, what was the condition of my fencing?
I considered getting my own sheep I was told this was a terrible idea. Sheep would exhaust me by constantly pushing their way through fences, or jumping clean over them. I would race through woods with a feed bucket looking for them or, even worse, charge down the road by night hoping to persuade them to follow me before headlamps appeared and an accident occurred.
Anyway, the sheep would all die. I was assured that only farmers had the necessary knowledge to maintain a healthy flock. Farmers understood how to round them up and keep them in, how to dose, drench and, bathe and pour-on all the potions necessary to ward off such killers as liver fluke, foot rot, lice and scald. Only farmers could shear and crutch and dag in order to prevent the inevitable fly strike that killed in numbers in spring and autumn.
Even if I could figure out what they were talking about and stay on top of all the requisite managing, I was told that chances are the sheep would die. Sheep have a million inventive ways to die and they are reputed to regularly practice their death wish, dying by misadventure or fright or pneumonia. They would get bloat—a build-up of gas inside their gut that must be carefully reduced lest the sheep suffer an internal explosion. They would get worms that would require chemical treatment and strict pasture rotation to keep under control. They would contract any number of diseases, a few of which can affect humans. They would get fly strike, a condition in which flies laid eggs on their wool and the resulting maggots ate through the sheep’s flesh, emitting fatal toxins.
They weren’t only passive recipients of death, but active pursuers of it. My sheep would eat poisonous plants, actual garbage, get caught in fencing, become “cast”—that is unable to get up from the ground—until their organs failed and corvids plucked out their eyes. This could happen in a matter of hours, I was assured. I would come back from dinner party to find the remains of my sheep laid out in pieces on the ground. What the corvids left, the badgers would have.
They would die quickly and in agony, ill-suited for the natural surrounds that I had hoped they would manage.
Besides which, they made terrible pets. Pet owners did not know what to do with sheep and ended up with sick and dying animals in breach of every regulations set out of by the government with regard to farm animals. Sheep are food, not pets. Put lamb in your freezer, not your little pony paddock. Pet owners were too soft, misguided and inexperienced to even consider taking on sheep. You will be miserable, I heard over and over. You will regret it!
It was a bad idea, perhaps the very worst of ideas, to put them on my property.
And yet, I did.
The lamb in the photo at the beginning of this blog is the youngest of four that arrived a week ago. And below is a photo of me with some sheep from the first flock I bought, nine years ago. They came to as “shearlings” (year-old ewes) and we’ve been pals ever since. If you happen to want to keep sheep as pets, you’ll be delighted to know that this greenhorn managed somehow, though not without some trepidation. I’ll write a few blogs to give you an idea of what is required, and maybe persuade you to give it a try.
Photo by Jane Starnie