Eighteen sheep jostle me as I try to count them again, ‘Stand still! Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen.’ There should be nineteen – nineteen beautiful (well to me they are), pregnant ewes of the hardy Welsh Mountain variety. ‘One of you is missing – what’s happened? What’s going on?’ No one answers. Well, they all do, they baa but they are looking curiously at me.
‘Oh no! I can’t bare it!’ only the day before I had boasted about our low mortality. I had tempted fate… Pride comes before a fall… Axioms jostle truisms in my head as I stride up the hill pursued by baas.
By the time I reach the gate of the top field I can see the large, motionless body of a sheep, with its legs in the air, like an upturned coffee table, ‘Please God, not a dead sheep.’ At that moment one leg gives a twitch – I run the last hundred yards up hill. Is she sick – in her death throws or is she cast?
Cast is when a sheep gets onto her back – for some reason sheep don’t work very well when they are upside down. It’s quite an advantage for the shepherd – if you want to do something to one you can turn it over and it won’t struggle – it’s not such an advantage to the sheep. Once they get onto their backs they can just lie there with just a few little kicks until they die.
This sheep isn’t dead. She is hugely pregnant. I check her ear tag: 9229. She is Square Sheep, that is her name – they are not supposed to have names but she is one of our oldest and cleverest (though not today) and she has a magnificently heavy fleece which makes her look almost as wide as she is long – hence Square Sheep.
I gently and slowly roll her downhill until she is the right way up and she struggles to her feet, staggers sideways, falls over and rolls onto her back again, straight back to inverted coffee table.
This time I roll her to nearly the right way up and hold her there for a few minutes talking to her encouragingly and thinking about twin-lamb-disease and the staggers and all the other falling-over conditions that can afflict a sheep. Once she has calmed down I loosen my grip and move away. She struggles slowly to her feet and stands for a while before moving away unsteadily, tacking and with splayed legs, like a sailor back on land after a long voyage.
In the distance a quad bike revs, the cavalry is coming, and below the other sheep stand, an ovine smear across the field, watching us walk slowly down. All eyes are fixed on the old ewe as her confidence increases and her dignity returns.