It’s October — you knew that – I know it. The sheep know it – the ewes nag me every day about moving them to the flushing meadow, to the best new grass which will remind their ovaries of their perennial duty. They look pitifully at their empty mineral pot and then fix me with dark quizzical eyes that ask, ‘When will the ram arrive?’
‘I know, I know, it’s not forgotten – he’s booked for the ninth of November –as soon as the ram-lambs have gone to market you’ll go to the good grass.’
Everything is late this year, it was such a lovely summer, autumn just crept up un-noticed. The oak trees have only just started to lose their colour and we’ve been so busy with all the soft fruit, cutting timber and wasting hours trying to catch this year’s remarkable ram-lambs (not to mention wrestling with a new computer, new printer, doing the tax returns, the books, the VAT, and sorting out the new solar panels and the old camper van in time to miss the very best summer in living memory!
‘They’ve gone a bit over,’ says the white haired farmer to his grandson, looking at our crop of male lambs gathered in the far corner of their little enclosure at Aberystwyth Livestock Market. We look at the competition – pen after pen of matched, clean, docile store lambs, tails neatly docked, testicles removed at birth.
‘None to compare with our tykes,’ says Alan, – these farmers are bound to recognise real sheep – they’ve got to feel nostalgic when they see these magnificent little chaps – look at them,’ band of desperados, decidedly not castrated – broken horns, two with bloody noses from fighting – not so small either!.
They started the day clean and tidy but as all the other sheep in the market were trooping up and down the ramps into and out of their pristine trailers our 18 were making a stand.
We had spent most of the previous day trying to catch them and had retired defeated and were having a glass of wine and preparing ourselves for the ultimate humiliation — calling in the cavalry ( neighbours with dogs and long memories) to help us next morning. I had another glass of wine, ‘I think I’ll have one last try.’
‘One more last time,’ said Alan — his mantra with the children.
It was after ten, I ventured out alone with the lambing torch – they had never seen the light before. I jiggled the powerful beam on the grass in front of them, they turned and ran. I jiggled the light in front of the galloping posse, it stopped and turned. I stood in the black night – no light pollution where we live – and directed them with my magic jiggly beam, back and forth, slowly, little by little – down to the corner of the field and the entrance to the run that leads to the pressing pen, full of shadow and protection from the light of god. Bingo! The whole lot caught in one go – I closed and tied the gate. It was nearly midnight.
Next morning at first light we constructed an impenetrable funnel between the pressing pen and the borrowed trailer, made of metal hurdles and gates, tied together with baler twine and weighted down with garden furniture – we were transferring Hannibal Lector.
We closed the gate of our newly constructed (not yet patented) sheep-machine onto the ram lambs and we pushed. They compacted a little. They did not advance smoothly up the ramp. They stood – their four wheel drive engaged – they were making a stand – Rourke’s Drift. We pushed harder – nothing happened. The dog whimpered – he has no confidence in us.
Red faced and panting – long past shouting at each other – I climbed in with them, I embraced one, I pulled it up the ramp and went for the next — the first was back down before me. We both tried this — Alan fell over backwards, muddied and split his trousers and broke his wrist – probably only a little bone – he didn’t make a fuss.
Fortunately the trailer had a full height gate half way down – a bulwark (always useful when transferring psychopaths). Eventually we used, I used, a hurdle to separate one individual from the stand and force him up the ramp then, wedging the hurdle behind me, I man-, woman-handled, him through the gate into the front of the trailer. Each time, the moment the gate opened just enough for him to see the sheep already in there he would cease his struggling and go peacefully. The gate only opened inwards – very well designed.
One by one we loaded them, some resisting more heroically than others. That’s why we were late to market ‘You should get up earlier!’ – that’s why we were not going to take them home – why my husband was raggy-arsed – why I had punk hair and khaki camouflage on my face (no one thought to tell me until evening), why the ram-lambs had the look of Just William and why farmers, who are more experienced than we are, castrate their ram-lambs at birth! .
‘Will you take £50.50?’ the auctioneer asked.
‘We’d hoped for a little more’, I replied to the sea of un-muddied faces — we’d studied protocol.
‘I’ll offer £50.80 said the handsome young dealer.
‘£51.50!’ the auctioneer looked for the nod which we gave and he struck the top rail of the pen with his knobbed stick.
Another year over.
‘Diana… Did you count these sheep?’ asked Alan, ‘You see… I only make it 17!’