Counting Sheep

I’m standing in the meadow behind the house, clutching a stack of buckets. Before venturing outside, I pulled on a pair of shorts and stepped into my wellingtons, leaving a gap for my knees to peek through so they are now wet with dew from the damp morning grass. Drops cling to my eyelashes and to my beard, though the rising sun will soon see them off.  I will gently steam dry in the warm butter-yellow early hour.  The chickens – six now, with two new arrivals – scratch at the ground in their pen, muttering about things I cannot see.  The chicken pen, my first attempt at construction, is beginning to collapse as the repeated besieging by five greedy sheep takes its toll.  I have patched up the wire where they have forced their way through either in an attempt to get in, to eat the chickens’ pellets, or to escape when I have used the pen to corral them when foot-trimming or treatment have been required.  Two of the wooden posts have come loose, and it is barely fit for purpose anymore.  I will have to rebuild, make it stronger.

I shake the buckets, a handful of oats in each, to tempt the sheep from their shelter.  They are bright white, freshly sheared.  A neighbour, half a mile down the lane, came and picked them up and took them to his farm, where he was shearing his flock.  They were herded into his trailer, fat woolly barrels, and were returned a few hours later lighter, smaller, cleaner.  With the temperatures reaching the low thirties some days, they are happier now, and there is less chance of fly-strike (a most unpleasant and painful affliction).  They bound through the long grass toward me.  Or, rather, toward the sound of rattling breakfast. 

They do not really need feeding in these long summer days.  The meadow provides more than enough forage for them; grass, clover, wild herbs, even thistle and dock fall to the relentless mash of teeth.  However, they are such skittish creatures that a daily beckon with the bucket helps to reinforce the association of man with food, and I am able to (eventually) steer them where I want them (nearly every time).  It also provides an opportunity for a close inspection each day, make sure they are in good health.  Eyebrows, the queen of the meadow, comes last, and slowly.  She is the oldest, at seven years.  When she arrived, last September, she was the biggest, the fastest, the nosiest, and the most stubborn.  She would stamp her foot at me if I approached with anything less than complete subservience (and some food).  She was both the easiest to handle, because she was not particularly scared of me, and the most difficult, because she was of her own mind, and stronger than me.


Today, sheared and svelte, she moves slowly, a little stiffly.  She does not limp.  Her feet are fine, recently checked and gently trimmed where needed.  She eats with gusto, and grazes with the others, though often lies down when doing so.  She is not sick.  She is getting older.

The time is approaching to decide who to send to the abattoir.  To be killed, let’s not pretty it up.  The original plan, to keep the two older ewes along with one of the lambs to breed from, now seems less likely.  If Eyebrows is ageing, and struggling a little, should we put her in lamb?  Will she carry to term, safely for both her and her lamb (possibly twins, it’s common)?  If she finds it harder now to carry her own weight, how will she cope with the added weight of gestating unborns?  I don’t think it fair, or safe, to do this now.

Equally, we cannot afford to keep a pet sheep.  Winter feed costs, the inevitable mounting vet’s bills, with no financial return does not fit in our strict budget.  The cat is luxury enough (though she does help keep the mice at bay).  I know what needs to happen, if we are to see our ideas through and not end up going broke.  Emotionally and ethically, it is trickier.  I have allowed myself to grow attached to Eyebrows, as we planned to keep her on.  I am fond of her, if she is at best ambivalent to me.  And what gives me the right to end a life based on financial considerations?  Why is this different to sending the lambs to slaughter, as planned?  But it is, somehow.

I battle with these thoughts this morning, as the five sheep munch on their daily oats.  In my mind, I know I have made a decision.  Eyebrows will go, along with at least one of the younger sheep.  My heart rails against this.  This indecision is almost the worst part.  The worst part for me, I remind myself.  Whatever happens here, it will not happen to me.  It will happen to another living being.  Had we not taken her on, she would already have gone to slaughter.  We have given her more life, and a good life at that.  But does that justify whatever decision I make?

The sheep finish their breakfast, and wander off to graze in the brightening morning.  I collect up the buckets and walk back towards the house, to some tea and a towel for my knees.  Eyebrows lies down in the grass, grazing in front of her.  A dragonfly zips past my ear and barrels off across the meadow.  The birds sing, but I do not enjoy their song today.