Of Death And Responsibility On The Farm

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Nyberg
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Experienced farm folk know that the act of raising animals great and small inevitably brings with it a close connection with death.  After all, in many cases, the livestock we grow is destined to become our food, killed for that purpose.  Academically, I understood and accepted this as I entered upon this new lifestyle, but it did not stop my hands from shaking when I culled my first rabbit from our breeding stock.  After watching a few videos on Youtube to learn the techniques of killing and butchering, I realised there was no substitute for the real thing.   As a thirty-something suburbanite, the reality of removing life was quite different from that of a farm kid with a lifetime of exposure to the act of killing.  Decades of only ever nurturing and protecting pet animals that lived and played in my childhood home, and later in my own apartments and houses, was turned upside down.  Here was an animal in my arms, just the size of our pet cat, similarly vital and breathing and beautiful,  neither aged nor ill, and I wanted to take its life, break its neck, remove that miracle of electrical impulse, synapse and chemistry.  The opposition of these two poles was difficult for me to overcome as I stood over  the rabbit.  But I did kill it, and many more in the year following, becoming with each subsequent kill more and more comfortable with this self-endowed power as Giver of Life or Death.  

The coming of  Horse Drawn Farms’  very first lambs was  a delight, and in my newness as a shepherd, I could not help but choose a favourite.  The only black lamb, with a small white patch or two across her back and the daughter of my best ewe, was an obvious candidate.  I carried her around in her first week, making friends, removing her fear and being gratified when she came to nibble at the tops of my boots or barely batted an eyelash as I approached her curled-up form tucked into a corner of the pen. By now,  my life-or-death power was in full swing.  This one will stay, I decided, and become one of my breeding flock. As I stroked her velvety wool, still coiled in little twists over her body, I envisioned her all grown up and perhaps having black lambs of her own–and all for me.   Yes, I had made my mind up about her, I thought, giving her warm little head a sniff.  The wonderful new-smell of baby lamb was a perfume.

And then she was dead.  I found her the next morning, hung.  She had strangled herself upon a hay net left, by me, hanging too low in the lamb pen.  I stared, aghast.  Hundreds of twists in the nylon of the net and the bare patch of flooring underneath swept free of straw told the story of a lengthy struggle.   Perhaps it was hours, spinning, gasping, kicking; plunging as the life was slowly squeezed out of her.  This was the power I had begun to feel smug about– she had died a horrible, prolonged death through my carelessness.

After loosing the stiff little body and laying it aside just outside the pen, I opened the door for turnout as usual.  Four ewes and their lambs charged out, but Emily only stood over her dead child, sniffing it carefully, chuckling her humming mother-call, puzzled as to why it wasn’t ready to go.  I left her for quite a while, to see if the pull of the flock would bring her along, but nothing would induce her to walk more than three or four steps.  In the end, I had to carry the lamb out to the paddock for her, and laid it in state where she could watch its still form as she ate.   In the afternoon, I finally removed it.

Writing this now in my office two days later, I can still hear her loud and obviously worried calls outside, reverberating into a stillness from which comes no answer.  I cherish the luxury I have of seeing the sheep run out each morning, the young ones joyously leaping and bounding in their exuberance at the freedom, the wonder of their new lives.   But I am weighed now, perhaps as all farmers should be, by the sense  of responsibility I have.  As a farmer producing animals, I am the cause of their life.   It falls to me, then, to remain vigilant, to ensure that their lives are the most comfortable, the most natural lives possible, and that their end, no matter when it comes, is the best possible death.

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