Thursday, 3 November 2011

Bo v. The Wickerman

Why did God create sheep? Where’s the logic in creating an animal for which every day is an end is nigh day and every rumination is a potential last supper? Was it a prototype for a higher being that He forgot to shelve or a last minute bish bash bosh, bit of this bit of that pukka creation a la Jamie Oliver?
Don’t get me wrong, I am starting to warm to my flock of three, especially now their true characters are starting to show through – Myfanwy the shaggy girl, ringleader and chief trouble maker; Babs the greedy girl with spotty ears and a “don’t mess with me” attitude; Margo the shy girl and ditzy blonde of the flock who’s always on the wrong side of the fence at feeding time.
Maybe I expected too much from an animal which, according to “The Sheep Book for Smallholders” (available from very few good book stores) is “intrinsically tied up with almost every momentous episode in the history of mankind”. Where were your sheep when JFK was assassinated? Can you be sure they weren’t in the Book Depository or on the infamous grassy knoll? Maybe the original design was flawless, and it’s hundreds of years of man’s tinkering with breeds to suit his needs that has left me with a flock of three with fluff for brains and a genetic predisposition to acquire any infection, disease, mite or worm that passes within a 50 mile radius of their field.  
There’s a very good reason why the pig is recommended as the ideal animal for the smallholder – give them a warm bed, rooting opportunities aplenty, buckets of nosh and the occasional belly rub or back scratch, and all is well in the land of the pig. Meanwhile, over in sheep world, there’s hoof trimming, foot spraying, bum cleaning, coat shearing, then vaccinations, drenchings and squirting stuff into their mouths. None of which can be done at arms length, all of which require you to catch the woolly escapologist in the first place. And to think that the vet advised us to spray Myfanwy’s dodgy hoof twice a day – the funniest joke I’d heard since hearing some fool advocate beekeeping for smallholders because bees require “minimal upkeep”!
Surrounded by hills, we live in a natural amphitheatre, with our field the stage, and every hilltop farm a seat in the Gods from which to view the daily performance of “shepherding for idiots”. We’ve experimented with various herding methods. There are the carrot techniques involving troughs of sheep nuts cunningly positioned in a narrow corral alongside the pig pen - tears from me as a hurriedly closed gate slices open my little finger, sighs from Dave as yet again Myfanwy demonstrates her high jumping skills, squeals from Blanket the pig as she grabs a mouthful of Myfanwy’s fleece through the fence, and ill-suppressed sniggers from all as Squaddie Dad launches himself at a hastily departing sheep and is dragged to his knees as Myfanwy exits stage left. Then there are the stick techniques involving a motley crew of assorted family and friends stumbling across the field, arms outstretched, being given the run around by our wayward sheep while the bemused dog either hides in the corner of the field or maintains a safe distance behind the electric fence. Now I know why the show is called “One Man & His Dog” and not “One Man, His Wife, His Parents, Two Friends, A Pig & His Sheep-shy Sheep Dog”.
IMG_6534(A giant appears to be tweaking Dave’s ear!)
But carrot and stick are nothing compared with the lesser known “Wickerman” technique. You won’t read about this in “The Sheep Book for Smallholders”. In fact I doubt any farmer in the whole of Wales has hitherto deployed the secret weapon of sheep husbandry that is the “Wickerman” (although that’s probably more to do with lack of necessity than lack of knowledge). It’s ideal for the inexperienced sheep owner who, like us, has a completely useless sheep dog, not enough bodies on hand to form a sheep proof human chain, but whose flock consists of the fastest sheep in the West. All you need is a father-in-law and two very, very long tree branches. Place a branch in each of your father-in-laws hands, stretch his arms out, get him to walk slowly across the field towards towards your flock and hey presto, you’ve mastered the Wickerman technique! Guaranteed to corral even the most unruly of sheep. Be warned there can be unexpected side effects. Symptoms of excess use of the Wickerman herding technique can include outbreaks of cowboy impersonations ….
IMG_6548 Squaddie Dad, available to hire for weddings, bar mitzvahs and all your sheep herding needs – payment accepted in red wine and cake!