Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
When you’re a suburban farmer and you’ve never had lambs before, it might be tempting to build your temporary lamb pen within steps of your house. You’ll want to keep an eye on your new arrivals, no doubt, and be able to get there fast, should the need arise. But make no mistake: there are cons to having sheep just outside the back door. Many, noisy cons. Retrospectively, in fact, having five pregnant ewes back in the converted garage at the end of the driveway wasn’t bad at all. Although their hungry yells penetrated the solid wood doors every morning when they finally heard my footsteps crunching on the gravel, I knew that with the touch of the latch, the noise would switch off and five woolly, fecund balloons would come catapulting out in a headlong rush towards their paddock, and breakfast. But lambing time changed all that.
The wonder of free stuff on Craigslist got the lambing pen off the drawing board and into action. Winter wind storms can be brutal here on the west coast, and a great many Costco tarpaulin car shelters love to go tumbling through the suburbs, up streets and down alleys, until they rest in little piles against the local telecommunications compound. Others simply get flattened when the occasional heavy snowfall turns to rain, and their owners aren’t inclined to leap out of bed at 3am to brush off the 40 000 pounds of snow mush. After such weather extremities, Craigslist comes alive with offers of tangled metallic wrecks, and such messes often end up at Horse Drawn Farms. Many an animal shelter here has been constructed fitting undamaged portions together, with good success. The lamb pen was more elaborate in that it required a full floor, (delicate young lambs must be protected from moisture), but Craigslist provides all needs. Ten sturdy pallets were procured, as were some discarded plywood sheets once used for forming concrete. At last, with the overhead tarp securely fastened and a deep bed of clean straw, all was ready.
A week later, when the pen was occupied by its first mother, Daisy, with her twin ram lambs, I began to notice how she watched the back entrance to the house. It would happen in the morning, just after putting on my boots and hat and gathering the dog and cats for their dawn egress. With impeccable timing, when the door opened a crack, Daisy would unleash a bellow that could raise the dead. And would repeat it, constantly, until her breakfast was served. Since this involved a walk to hay shed to retrieve the goods, a considerable three or four minutes could pass. And all the while her volume increased, utterly drowning out not only the pleasant cheeps of the morning songbirds, but the nearby traffic, Tintin the rooster, and even the din of the still-pregnant prisoners of the sheep garage. I had been used to stopping at the chickens first– a simple tip of ration into their feeder took only seconds– but no longer. Daisy’s gratification was now the priority.
Then Spotty Legs had her twins, and the ante was upped. Either hungrier than Daisy or just with sharper vision, her peculiarly deep rumble preceded the door opening, for she saw me well in advance through the picture window, reaching for my jacket. Cowering under two ewes giving full voice only steps from the door, I started trotting to the hay shed, rather than my usual sleepy stroll. When Lucy, known for her persistence in shouting even when her mouth is stuffed full, joined the group with her single lamb, I began to leave the hay ration next to the stairs instead, ready to pop it straight into the pen. The cacophony was added to daily by high-pitched little baas, ever increasing in number and confidence. I tried skulking into the back room. But it was no good keeping the curtains closed, because sharp-eyed Spotty saw the movement of my silhouette and let loose. Then Emily had her twin lambs and moved in. The smartest ewe of the bunch, she learned by association and began to bawl when she heard my alarm clock ringing upstairs. And Charlotte, last of the ewes to join the congregation with her twins, simply didn’t want to miss out on any potential activity and baaed at random, sometimes at 3 a.m.
I was beginning to feel hunted. Both ewes and lambs now shouted at every sight of me, their hapless caregiver. Oh, the morning hay kept them quiet for a few minutes. But I could no longer move through the yard, at any time, without being bombarded by baas. The appearance of the muck cart set them off. Me leading a horse set them off. Heading out in the truck for supplies set them off. Me slinking away to hide behind the horse stall walls with my hands over my ears only seemed to spur them on. In the morning, I worried, and watched the windows of the neighbours, lest a shotgun should appear. By the afternoon, I was considering the shotgun myself. Luckily however, time marches on, and the lambs are now old enough to spend all day turned out in a paddock with their mothers. This morning was their first time out, and the relief in the home yard is palpable. Tintin, the birds and the traffic have the place to themselves, and I have plans already hatching for next year…to build that lamb pen as far away as possible.