The milk of human kindness


With cattle, especially dairy cows, you tend to deal with them as individuals quite a lot of the time. As you get to know them, you learn their little idiosyncrasies. Some are brighter than others, some curious, some laid back and placid. With sheep for the vast majority of the time they manage to blend into the flock and you tend to deal with an ‘average’ intellect. Admittedly it’s not a very high average, but at least sheep can console themselves that, by and large, they’re smarter than horses.

But at lambing you start dealing with individual sheep, and at this point you realise that the average rather flatters a lot of them.

This afternoon I noticed a ewe had lambed. I could see the two lambs snuggled up under the hedge. So I got the quad and trailer out and went to collect them. They were in a different field to the rest of the flock so I shut the gate behind me to ensure that they didn’t come streaming in behind me looking for food and getting in the way.

I then parked the trailer handy for the lambs, picked up the lambs, and walking backwards so mum could see them at all times, carried them to the trailer. Mum followed briefly before setting off at speed to look for them somewhere else entirely. Indeed she had obviously decided they’d rejoined the flock because when she found the gate was shut she crashed through the fence instead.

So now I had to get all of them into the yard to sort out our doting mother. And as they entered the yard she knocked down a hurdle and led them onto the lane instead. Some of them followed a bucket back but the others had to be brought back by the simple expedient of overtaking them on the quad and driving them back.

All this has to be done tactfully because in spite of the fact they seem to have forgotten this small technical detail; they’re all heavily in lamb and ought to behave sensibly. As I overtook one of them, I was close enough to notice that her eye looked a bit milky. When they’re in the field sheep aren’t keen on you getting too close, and this was something you could only see when you were a couple of yards away at most. It struck me she might be having problems with that eye and I’d better treat her.

When they were running back I watched out for the one with eye problems. As it ran into the yard it careered full tilt into a gate stoop that it had obviously not seen. By the look of it, we definitely had a sheep with eye problems (and probable concussion.)

So I sorted mum out into a pen and put the others back into the field. By this time the rain had started. I then backed the trailer to the pen gate and got mum into it with the two lambs. She appeared vaguely pleased to see them. I drove the trailer round to the other pens where she’ll stay until we’re convinced she’s looking after them properly and there was this bumping sound from the trailer. Oh joy, a flat tyre.

I backed the trailer up to the other pens, got her into one, got her two lambs in with her and shut the gate before she thought of anything else stupid to do.

Then it was a case of putting the trailer handy for taking the wheel off tomorrow morning, put the quad away and then go and get some colostrum into our two newcomers.
Now they’re fed, snug and happy, mum is beaming at them, and I’m wet, cold and hungry. At times like this you have to ask yourself which is the intelligent species.


Oh and if you are feeling particularly intelligent you might or might not have noticed that I produced a slim volume of these blog posts, nicely tidied up and with grammar, punctuation and everything. It’s available in paperback or as an ebook


As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”

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16 thoughts on “The milk of human kindness

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt February 26, 2017 at 9:08 pm Reply

    Sheep are more intelligent than horses? That goes against something conventional in the back of my brain.

    As for the rest, and the incompetent mom, and the sheep that doesn’t have any ability to determine she can’t see and tell you – you can sell her, she can’t sell you. It’s what you have.

    It will have to suffice.

    • jwebster2 February 26, 2017 at 10:05 pm Reply

      I think the comparative intelligence comes from livestock farmers who’re used to cattle and dogs who are far brighter than sheep.
      I think that my father’s generation who dealt with workhorses on a daily basis would probably have a higher opinion of horses, but the problem with have is that a lot of the horses we come across nowadays are bored, poorly trained and rarely work. Most of us don’t have horses, we merely rub shoulders with other people’s.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt February 26, 2017 at 10:34 pm

        Okay – I’m comparing the poor workhorses to the wild mustangs in my head in some places in the West in the US – which have to be quite clever to protect their mares and foals. Entirely different kettle.

        When they’re not allowed to take care of themselves, someone has to put quite a lot of work in to take care of them – for limited return on investiment.

      • jwebster2 February 27, 2017 at 7:35 am

        actually when it comes to mothering ability there are few animals that can match some breeds of sheep. They’ve been bred for it over millennia because it’s one of the most important things for a sheep to do.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt February 27, 2017 at 1:25 pm

        Makes sense. Animals which are too stupid to take care of themselves and their offspring, especially in large herds, should not be allowed into the next year’s gene pool (in modern terms). I’m sure even primitive man would understand, even if natural selection was erratic.

        You gave me the impression, though, with the story you told, that you had to bolster that ewe’s instincts quite a bit to get her safe and taking care of her two lambs. How de you use that information in the future?

      • jwebster2 February 27, 2017 at 3:39 pm

        We worked out that she’d fed both lambs before I arrived and it’s probable that she panicked at my presence rather than was a poor mother. Once we put her back with them she was fine.
        It was also her first set of lambs and they find it a somewhat disconcerting experience and the maternal instinct probably hasn’t kicked in. With her next set she’ll be fine

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt February 27, 2017 at 3:57 pm

        I know animals often lose the first baby(ies) due to inexperience. Some eat the babies!

        Regardless of how much instinct is imprinted in their brains, the first birth and delivery have got to be a whopper, and most animals do it alone. Sometimes all – mother and babies – die due to complications that might have been handled by a vet. I’m sure sometimes there are problems CAUSED by a human’s presence, too.

      • jwebster2 February 27, 2017 at 4:00 pm

        Most problems are caused by people panicking and trying to do things too soon. I know a lot of vets who get called out to difficult births and by the time they arrive, another half hour or so has passed and the animal has opened up a bit more and there is more room and the calf comes comparatively easily

  2. jbwye February 27, 2017 at 9:13 am Reply

    Lovely writing, and I have just downloaded your little e-book – but I must support Alicia! Horses, in my experience, can be extremely intelligent and intuitive (but some are more stupid than others); especially when they’ve been trained. Can you train sheep?
    Love your description of the wayward sheep – reminds me of some crowds of people…

    • jwebster2 February 27, 2017 at 9:53 am Reply

      I think that what claim sheep have to intelligence is that they refuse to be trained 🙂 They live ‘with us’ but during summer when grass is growing they ignore us as much as possible. In winter when they need extra feed then they come looking for us. Actually they’re a very different animal to Horses, personally I suspect they’re barely semi-domesticated.
      To be honest I suspect that with both species the sheep are too distant to us to be judged by the same criteria we use for dogs or cattle, while horses suffer (in this country) from too many people not having the skills to train them properly and bring the best out of them.
      I hope you enjoy the book 🙂

  3. Mary Fisher February 28, 2017 at 6:19 pm Reply

    It all depends on what is meant by ‘intelligence’.

    • jwebster2 February 28, 2017 at 10:14 pm Reply

      Of course. Actually it’s just a bitter shepherd’s comment at these long legged idle things eating grass his woolly maggots could be eating 🙂

  4. Kate McClelland March 4, 2017 at 2:39 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Kate McClelland.

    • jwebster2 March 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm Reply

      glad you liked it Kate 🙂

  5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt February 28, 2022 at 12:45 am Reply

    I forgot to ask: how did the ewe with the eye problem do? Assuming you remember. You usually tie up all the threads!

    • jwebster2 February 28, 2022 at 6:10 am Reply

      Yes it was just a case to putting an antibiotic paste on her eye (under the eyelid) and one application cleared it up

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