A Celebration of Sheeple – Belated Birthday Greetings to our Wonderful Woollies!

Well, we’ve done it! Despite hearing from more than one person who knows, ‘Sheep are always looking for ways to kill themselves,’ our micro-flock of Boreray wethers (castrated males) has now survived more than a year, since mid-September ’21, with us no-longer-quite-so-novice shepherds.

L – R: Soboray, Socks and Sweater

Not that we haven’t had some hairy moments. Our first attempt at catching them, a disheartening disaster which began by teaching us the full, scarily impressive meaning of the term ‘battering ram’ and ended with all three escaping into the orchard – whence they could, if not distracted, have escaped into a much wider world. ‘They’re eating your trees!’ gasped friend Nick, who’d come to lend a hand. ‘Let them,’ Hubcap retorted grimly, pounding over the pastures shutting gates, shifting hurdles, and preparing to herd them back home. Or Socks getting his head stuck in the stock-fencing; spooked by a visitor, he and Sweater retired to safe distance while social Soboray hung around, hoping for more better treats. Alpha male Socks kept galloping back to check on him. ‘What are you doing?! Come away!’ Sob shrugged it off. ‘I’m not bovvered.’ Eventually, a panicking Socks ran too close to the fence, got his horns stuck in the wire, and had to be cut free with the bolt-cutters Hubcap sprinted to fetch from the van, while I straddled the sheep to stop him thrashing about and breaking his neck. I don’t think he’s forgiven me yet.

Possibly most alarming was a recent encounter with Soboray. One minute he was happily stuffing down fresh hazel boughs with the others, the next he ambled away, turned to face me, and bared all his teeth in a most unearthly grin. Then green foam started dripping from his jaws. It was a real Exorcist moment, as if our amiable black sheep was on point of transformation into the demon Baphomet, or dread Goat of Mendes – or choking on some unexpected nasty. Either way, I watched in horror as he walked off coughing and drooling, braced to try and catch him, clear his airway, attempt a Heimlich manoeuvre, whatever. Luckily I didn’t need to do anything – he hawked up a huge wad of green slime, possibly containing some obnoxious beetle, (since he gave no sign of being stung in the mouth by a wasp or bee, but got stuck straight back into the hazel-fest).

Anyhow, gosh, what a long way we’ve come in thirteen months: from complete strangers to us and at best, passing acquaintances to each other in a flock of 80 or so mainly destined to become sausages, to a tight-knit trio of individuals with distinctly different characters and tastes, pure-bred Socks and Sweater forming a natural alliance as Team White Boy, and Soay hybrid Soboray, aka the Black Prince, odd sheep out in every way.

I’d been very dubious about getting them, to be honest. We knew nothing of sheep except what we’d read or seen on TV; plus I wasn’t sure I wanted the responsibility, or to be tied to the land in retirement by whatever might be involved in turning shepherd. Hubcap, however, had long planned and designed Beckside with livestock in mind – hence its subdivision into zones separated by hedgerow and (to date) 600 metres of stock-fencing, much of it laid with the help of stalwart friends over the year before the Woollies arrived (and finished just in time). He’d also looked deeply into what animals we and the site could cope with; we (very reluctantly on my part) rejected goats as too escape-prone/too clever by half, the ridiculously cute, wiggly-fleeced Black-Faced Charolais as non-native, and the otherwise ideal Soay as too goat-like and feisty. What we needed was a minimum-size flock of small, ‘thrifty’ British rare breeds which could eat anything and be relatively manageable for learners. Since we didn’t dare try raising lambs, it seemed wrong to take valuable pedigree breeding stock off the market; which left us with wethers to become our woolly lawnmowers/land clearance tools/ self-propelled muck-spreaders, and Marlfield Farm Borerays the best breed to answer our purpose.

Needless to say, the moment they galloped into their new Welcome Paddock, I was besotted – as were the neighbours, their children, their friends and friends’ children, and our family and friends. Everyone who saw them simply boggled as if at some rare antelope. We didn’t know sheep could be so beautiful. They may deviate from breed standard, we don’t know or care, but Dan and Heather chose them for us because they’re so easy to tell apart: darker Socks, with his tan face and legs and peachy mane; pristine Sweater, a white puffball with piebald face and legs, and a reddish mantle round his shoulders and down his spine; and jet-black/chocolate brown Soboray, with his white undercarriage and humbug-striped bum. Just like the late lamented Henry Wowler, I find them a joy and endless fascination to watch, enjoy their company, and wish I could spend more time with them.

Although they settled into their new surroundings straight away, and without trying to escape (phew!), the lads initially gave us a very wide berth – understandable, when their only previous contact with humans had been for ear-tagging and castration, or the less painful but equally stressful necessities of hoof-trimming, shearing and so on. But we always hoped to make friends – not least to spare us all distress when we had to catch and do stuff to them.

As with any creature, the way to the Woollies’ hearts was through their stomachs. Come our first winter, we thought, (wrongly, as we later learned), that they’d run out of grazing, so began to supplement with hay – which they ate, up to a point, from racks or a trug, but rejected once it had been on the ground, and seemed to get bored with very quickly. Consequently, a lot more was wasted than eaten, and by New Year, fussy Soboray in particular looked, to our untutored eyes, too thin and scraggy round the haunches (even though we knew they’d naturally shed weight over winter), and we worried about him getting cold. Enter the daily ritual of Rooty Treats to pack in a few easy calories: a bag of whatever parsnip, carrot, swede and/or beetroot I had to hand, diced small for dainty mouths, initially scattered on the ground, then offered on an outstretched palm. Greedy Socks was first to dash in and grab a mouthful, and before long was happily hand feeding. Soboray took longer to get the idea; he’d put his nose in my palm but couldn’t quite grasp what to do next – I had to practically push the first mouthful in. However, he soon became adept and now greatly prefers to be hand-fed, whereas less scrupulous Socks still scarfs it up from the ground. Shy Sweater will accept a leaf or sprig but hasn’t yet mastered taking Rooty Treats, largely because by the time he’s plucked up courage to approach, somesheep else has noticed and beaten him to it; instead he stands expectantly at the back, waiting for me to throw his share down while Sob and Sox fight over what’s in the trough (or my hand).

Still worried that they might be starving we also started giving them a wholesome ‘sheep muesli’ containing oat and pea flakes and soya pellets. They went mad for it. Great! By putting both feed troughs in the Shelter Paddock, one inside and one outside under the oak tree, we got them used to being together, with either or both of us, in a small area they associate with Big Food Pleasure. This made our second attempt at penning them (helped by Dan) relatively simple – and our solo effort when they had to be sheared a month later went off without a hitch or single nick inflicted by this first-time shearer.

Hubcap and Dad check Sweater’s teeth

Soboray, always the most sociable, is so devoted to muesli that as long as his head’s in the bucket we can do pretty much anything to him – a major advantage since the horrible discovery that he’s highly prone to fly-strike. This may be because his dark fleece retains more heat, although all three are vulnerable given the amount of time they spend foraging or cudding in hedgerows where they can be pooped on by birds. The first attack came after Sob took a big pigeon-splat on the back, which Hubcap did his best to wipe off that morning – but the residue was enough to bring blowflies swarming, and by afternoon his fleece was riddled with yellow, cottage-cheesy clots of eggs. Ugh. And if they hadn’t been found/removed, in two days he’d have had maggots eating into his flesh. Double ugh. Cue panic order of organic, eucalyptus-based blowfly repellent which destroys eggs as well as masking the ‘come lay here’ pheromones and keeping adults at bay. Thanks to the blessed muesli, Sob lets us check through his fleece twice a day and re-apply his ‘aftershave’ as required – the only one who’ll tolerate touching, and thus far the only one we’ve needed to touch daily (though obviously, I’ve been desperate to cuddle and stroke all three since Day 1). Just as well – while the weather stays mild the flies are still out in force, and this week he was struck by a different species which lays spikes of tiny white eggs rather than the yellow greenbottle clumps – interesting, if disgusting. Sob’s grown so accustomed we can even stroke him when there’s no food involved, and Hubcap once gave his rear end a good scratch which he leaned into and seemed to enjoy. And I did lay a hand on Socks once, when he was walking beside me. ‘Aw, Socks,’ I said, ‘are you letting me touch you?’ He leapt away, looking appalled. ‘No!’ Should’ve kept my mouth shut. Sweater I’ve never touched except when we caught him for shearing, although he’s grown much bolder of late, I’ve been thoroughly sniffed and inspected, and his lips have brushed my palm a couple of times. We’ll get there, eventually.

Meanwhile I swear all three are now much smarter than the average sheep, given the stimulus of a varied, natural environment and twice-daily conversation with large, friendly animals who make the effort to please and learn their language, (head shakes mean happy excitement, a stamped forehoof means impatience or ‘More!’, a double stamp with fore- or hind-hooves means, ‘More!’, a biff with a horn means, ‘Gerroff’ or ‘MORE! NOW!). They’ve also learned plenty of human. They know our voices, know their names, know the difference between a full and empty treat bag, know that if they – Soboray, at least – bleat plaintively enough at leaving time, we’re prone to pick them another handful of leaves before we go. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise: Proud Socks dislikes being told off, (especially in front of his minions), wants all the More Better for himself, and bullies both the other boys to get it. Clown Prince Soboray is bold and cheeky, apt to play practical jokes (the ‘stealth whiffle’ of an unsuspecting hand or buttock – alas for him, losing its effect on us due to frequent repetition, but still with great power to shock visitors), and prone to plant his forehooves in one’s midriff like an excited dog after the treat bag, or use one as a stepladder to reach overhead branches, so that one goes home covered in cloven hoof-prints like some horror movie extra trampled by said dread Goat of Mendes. This trick is mainly Sob’s – Socks has only used me as a ladder once, and Sweater wouldn’t dare – and according to Dan, it’s a sign of dominance, ‘Ner ner, not scared of you.’ Mostly we put up with whatever contact they initiate for the sake of building a relationship. Sometimes we don’t. Last time Sob jumped up, I grabbed both forelegs and mocked as he goggled helplessly and waved his head around in a futile attempt to hook my hands off, then pulled away looking affronted. Ha ha, serve him right. I don’t put up with butting either, which only Sob is apt to do when impatient for More Better Treats (and once buffeted Hubcap round the shelter pen when he broke off from serving muesli to answer the phone). I’ve discovered a sharp bop on the offending horn (think Basil Fawlty, Manuel, spoon) followed by immediate withdrawal of privileges does the trick, and reminds him who’s really the boss (not Socks). Pretty, timid Sweater, bottom of the pecking order, doesn’t attack anyone but will hold his own at the trough – or just leave the others to it and go hoover up their scraps, which usually means he gets the lion’s share. A true gourmand, he’ll get stuck into anything, especially if the others aren’t keen – no competition – and was first to enthusiastically embrace the salt-lick. Socks sneezed, shook his head and backed off the first time I held salt to his lips, while Soboray spat and, I kid you not, washed his mouth in a tuft of wet grass, though they’ve all acquired the taste now, judging from the tongue-marks and nibbled edges.

To close with some of the main things we’ve learned about sheeple in our first year of shepherding:

Woollies aren’t aggressive, except to each other, (Socks on Soboray, Sob and/or Sox on poor little Sweater). Just as well, because if they ganged up on us we’d long since be toast – one charge to break our knees/bring us down, another to break our skulls, and bam! Lights out, permanently. Socks did charge at me once, after I’d scolded him for eating apple trees, but I sat my ground and luckily he stopped a metre away, quivering with indignation, gave me a Look, then turned his nose up at a placatory treat (for the first time ever) and stalked off, dissing me with his bottom. See what I mean about it being hard not to anthropomorphise? The body language of this interaction was unmistakable – in terms of sheep etiquette, I’d seriously screwed up and Socks wanted me to know it.

Woollies don’t bite. In fact they’re scrupulously careful not to, and any finger detected by their exquisitely sensitive lips is avoided or daintily spat out. Again, just as well. I’ve only brushed a tooth once, in the early days of hand-feeding; sharp as a metal rasp, the merest touch almost drew blood. It’s weirdly fascinating to watch; the delicate jaws so narrow Sob and Sox can feed from the same palm (or same picnic plate, as I was charmed to discover at their anniversary party last month – their table manners are dreadful), the velvety mouths and tiny white teeth capable of browsing with millimetre precision, yet also of demolishing saplings and the most hostile vegetation in jig time because:

Woollies can eat anything, apparently. Hawthorn, thistles, brambles, nettles, dock – no problem. Ragwort and giant hogweed, which would probably kill commercial breeds raised on rye-grass and sheep pellets but which Hubcap will now have to cultivate in a sheep-proof zone for the sake of his precious cinnabar moths, hoverflies and honey bees. Toxic trees like elder and cherry, astringent analgesic willow, acidic, tannin-laden oak – Sweater and Socks will scrunch acorns down by the bushel, shells and all – we try to limit their intake of these and other supposedly harmful things, but the condition of their poo (inspected daily/minutely and sent off for annual worm-count) suggests all three are worm-free/in perfect digestive health. I suppose it makes evolutionary sense; native breeds in marginal environments would be genetically programmed to exploit any/every food source, particularly plants shunned by other grazers, and a regular intake of harsh chemicals must make their guts very uncomfortable for the average parasite.

Woollies’ favourite food is tree. Any species: catkins, green hazelnuts, tender twigs, whatever, they can strip leaves off an armload of boughs like a swarm of locusts, then strip the bark off what’s left. It’s awesome to behold and means that every young tree in areas they frequent has to be widely barricaded, or somesheep (mentioning no names, Soboray Woollie-Doggett) will use the fencing as a ladder to eat off every branch he can reach, then ring-bark it to death. Consequently, they got very peeved last winter when there were no leaves left and we’d failed, as we failed again this year, to gather any green boughs for drying into tree-hay. Of course, they do eat grass too and can flatten a pasture in a couple of weeks, but it often seems like a poor second if there’s anything more interesting to be had on the other side of the fence; and their individual tastes are fascinating. Sweater will try anything/everything, and usually eat it with relish. Socks loves any apple, core and all; Soboray ignores or spits any but sweet red eaters. Socks dislikes acorns whereas Sweat and Sob adore them. Everysheep likes Rooty Treats provided they’re diced small, and they’d probably scoff muesli till they burst if we let them; a certain sheep (guess who) has even started attacking the plastic dustbin where we keep the sack in his zeal to get at it.

All in all, contrary to my fears, our first year of shepherding has been massive fun, and the lads’ simple sheepy company a massive tonic and consolation after the sad loss of our beloved Henry Wowler. And to my great relief and pride, it’s been a success in that all three are still with us, bright-eyed, glossy-faced and clean-bottomed, seemingly happy, and with enough spare energy to play – Hubcap’s ‘sheeplechase’ video of them chasing each other up and down the long, curving beckside paddock (they stopped for a conflab then walked off as if embarrassed when they finally noticed him filming) still reduces us to helpless laughter no matter how often we watch it. What an acquisition and asset to the site they’re proving to be… Happy 1st Anniversary, Wonderful Woollies!

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