For simple country folk we lead complicated lives. It started when I let the dog out. Or perhaps it really started when the wheel bearing went on the quad trailer? But anyway, it was obvious the bearing was going so there was a replacement bearing sitting, pristine and jewel like in its wrapping.
Before I could get hay to sheep I needed the trailer and before I could use the trailer I would need to change the wheel bearing. And Sal, the dog, was getting bored and wanted out. So I let her out and started on the wheel bearing.
Now I like to take the wheel off first. Then I can put the hub in a bucket of hot water and detergent and clean it. So that way I know what’s happening. And then obviously it makes sense to clean off the axle as well. But as I’m doing this, I glance up and notice Sal walking backwards and looking distinctly unhappy.
Now it occurs to me that some explanation is called for. We’re lambing at the moment and the minute Sal is let out in a morning, she goes straight to the lambing shed. Not only is there the off chance of a bit of afterbirth, but joy of joys, there might be a bit of skin. Because sometimes if a lamb dies you skin it, put the skin on an orphan so the mother assumes that it’s the same lamb. That way she’ll let it suckle, and once it’s successfully suckled for a couple of days it smells like its new mum anyway and you can take the extra skin off.
From the point of view of a Border Collie, this is dog-chew heaven!
But if you remember an earlier blog, a common term used to describe mule ewes is ‘ya bluidy auld witch’. Apparently this isn’t a dialect term, as it is used by Shepherds from Somerset to Shap.
And this morning, one bluidy auld witch had got out of her lambing pen, and with her two lambs in tow, was taking the morning air. I don’t think she had any set destination in mind, other than ‘out’.
So as she came out of the shed in one direction, she met Sal going into the shed in the other direction. Now normally this would have had one result, the ewe would have retreated back into the shed. But this ewe had two lambs.
Now the maternal instinct can be strong in sheep. It seems to vary between individuals, and it’s something that has been bred for over the years. Indeed when ‘mothering on’, or trying to fit the third lamb from a set of triplets onto a ewe who only had a single, you depend heavily on this maternal instinct to kick in.
Indeed our previous dog, Jess, was encouraged to drift round the lambing shed on the grounds that her presence could arouse the protective maternal instinct in a tup!
So Sal, a dog so open and helpful that she howls back at the sirens on emergency vehicles, had run into a ewe, tooled up with lord alone knows how many millennia of selective breeding for maternal instinct.
At this point we had a communications breakdown. Thinking about it, probably a three species communication breakdown. I just wanted them to sort themselves out so I could change the bearing. Sal was just interested in anything she might find to nibble on. The ewe had taken one look at Sal’s teeth, a silhouette which doubtless matched perfectly the one marked ‘wolf’ in ‘A sheep’s guide to the predators of the world’ and suspected that this nibbling might involve her lambs.
So she stamped her foot.
Other species can be more spectacularly demonstrative. The roar of the lion, the snarl of big dog; they’re all pretty graphic warnings.
A sheep has a bleat that never sounds less than plaintive, and dentition that threatens nobody. So they stamp a front foot.
From the human point of view this doesn’t work well. It places them very firmly into ‘petulant infant’ territory.
What you must remember is that sheep have one good attack. Head down and hell for leather at whoever is the problem. It actually works best with bigger targets like people. Dogs are a bit nippy and unless the sheep can get the dog in a corner, the dog will probably escape.
But Sal wasn’t looking for trouble. She was walking backwards looking nervous and the ewe, her two lambs clustering round her, had a triumphal gleam in her eye.
Unfortunately I didn’t have time for all this. A hot date with a socket set and a wheel bearing called, and after that I had work to do. So I just walked past the dog and up to the ewe. Who stamped her foot!
At which point I called her a bluidy auld witch and told her to get back in the shed. This she did, her lambs leading the way as she kept turning and looking past me to keep an eye on the dog. Sal just slunk about looking embarrassed.
So I tied the hurdle back up and got on with the bearing. At some point in the day I’d vague hopes of writing some more deathless prose.
Whilst we’re talking about deathless prose
As the reviewer mentioned, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”