“Your sheep’s dead.”
We’d get that call regularly – phone calls or people popping round to the house in order to break the sad news.
“Oh, okay. Thanks for letting us know. Which one is it?” whichever family member answered the phone or door would ask.
“The big one.”
By which they meant Igor. He was old when we bought him, traded down to smaller and smaller farms as his age increased, until he arrived with us. He begrudgingly ambled down the ramp of a small horse trailer to examine his new domain: five fields blotched with gorse bushes, and 50 ewes of varying ages and states of ill health.
“I give him a month,” the farmer we’d bought him from said. By which he meant before Igor turned hooves upward and we’d have to drag his bulk back onto a horse trailer and send him off with the Knacker Man.
Although he was old, Igor was by no means decrepit. He had the pugnacious look that elderly East End gangsters acquire: nose flattened, ears chewed; the broad, lumpen face of an old fighter who’s been hit plenty of times but never been put down on the canvas.
He eyed each of us suspiciously, his bulk braced, ready for a show of ovine force. He didn’t last a month. He lasted six years. After all, the work he’d been contracted in to do, which was servicing the 50 ewes, was far from hard. Away from a larger flock, he was the only ram, and the more advanced age of our sheep meant he was not having to participate in the more demanding task of chasing and seducing shy maidens. This was an easy gig for the old bruiser.
At the top of lane that leads to the farm, there is a small triangle of grass and stinging nettles that we rented. This is where Igor lived with some of the more ancient ladies who enjoyed a softer, slower pace of life, away from the main flock. It is perhaps best to think of this pasture as a sheep retirement home. Igor was put here to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the younger ewes. (He may have been old, but Igor showed a dedication to his work.)
This lane is small, muddy and narrow, but a fair amount of human traffic – horse riders, farmers and ramblers would all go past each day. Each of them stopping briefly to note the dead sheep and then hurry to our house to report the corpse. Having received the news, one of us would don Wellington boots and wax jacket to trudge the ten minute journey up to the field to check Igor’s vital signs and discover if he’d had finally trotted off to the big meadow in the sky.
Invariably, he would be laying there, a mound of white like a crash-landed cloud, with crows fighting over the big, ugly banquet that his corporeal mass offered. Each of them squawking, flapping and pecking, eager to get past the woollen wrapper and into the meal itself. Whoever had walked up to the field would lean on the gate for a few moments, to see if the massive frame was moving at all. No, it seemed immobile, not even the slow rise and fall of his breathing. Next, you clanged the field gate shut and clomp over the field, while the rest of the small flock took themselves as far away from the two-legged interloper. Even with all this commotion and the alarm of the other sheep, the mound would stay placid. Maybe this time. There was a simple test that still needed to be performed. You place your hand on Igor’s back. Nothing. Then a gentle tap with the toe of your boot on his behind. And then another, a little harder than the first. Then, foot back as if you’re going to take the cup-deciding penalty at Wembley, and…Whack.
The white hummock would snort and slowly shift itself on to its feet. All the time giving you a look that promised a future full of malice and murder, before giving one of his growling, smoker’s cough bleats and returning to his corpse-like sleep. The crows would noisily decamp to nearby trees, ready to play the waiting game again. “Soon, maybe, soon” they shouted at each other.
Back at the house, Mum would shout from the kitchen “This time?”
“No, just sleeping.”
The shearer hated him. Every June it was a contest. On shearing day all of the flock was gathered in our barn. Each sheep is separated from the main body and funnelled through a passage made of gates tied together with baling twine, into a small penned area, where the shearer waited. He, with a Judo master’s precision, then grapples the sheep onto its bottom, its legs sticking out in front of it and a look of confused disgruntlement on its face, like an old matron having to travel to church in a motorcycle side car.
Getting Igor sheared required a group effort. The first year we had him, Dad said to the Shearer “the new ram’s a bit mean, you might need some help.” The shearer smiled the smile of someone who had just been patronised and was now more than happy to throw some patronisation back. He reminded my father of how long he’d been a journeyman shearer of sheep, of his long acquaintance with our family, as well as the other farming families of the area, how he had – with the grace of a martial arts black belt – manhandled literally thousands of sheep, and just because we seemed a little bit awed by our new ram, we were seriously underestimating the skill and knowledge of livestock that he brought with him, along with his motorised shearing machine. With the satisfied air of a man who had done some first class patronising, he took up position next to the wrapped packs of wool and the dangling umbilical of the shearing machine.
We chased Igor down the lane of gates towards the shearer. Igor skidded to a halt on the greasy, dung-smeared wooden boards that acted as flooring in the shearing section. He eyed the shearer, the shearer eyed him back.
“Him,” the shearer whispered.
It could have been professional pride or mere hubris that decided the shearer’s mind. With the resoluteness of the congenitally brittle-boned stepping into a wrestling ring, he put one hand under Igor’s chin, the other on the ram’s back leg and twisted the animal on to its rear. Igor went over and for a second both man and sheep weighed their surprise at this turn of events. Then, with the flick of the shoulder Igor righted himself, flinging the shearer onto the feculent floor. Happy that the natural order had been resumed, Igor stood glowering at us all.
“We usually work in a three person team – two on the legs and one on the head,” my dad said from his place behind the corridor of gates. “Yes, that might be for the best,” the shearer agreed for his new position staring at the shed’s rusty tin ceiling.
Before we continue, I must warn you that Igor did not share any character and motivations that one would recognise as human; sheeply thoughts occupied his sheepish brain. The world of nuance that balances ethics and action, the rainbow state where it is possible for someone to ask ‘Is this the right thing?’ has an ovine population of exactly zero. Sheep and humans inhabit the same space, well sheep live in fields and barns, humans live in the houses next door, but the worlds they populate are different. After the fact, Igor would have given no more thought to the event that I am going to relate now and his role in it. It is up to soft-hearted humans to chronicle his crimes , or indeed to call them crimes at all.
You see, he was a murderer, too.
Every year, just when the weather begins to promise spring, we’d take Igor mumbling and complaining out of the top field and move him to the field with the main flock. It was time for him to earn his keep.
However, Igor may have been as full of seed as a cheap orange, but after a couple of years, he became complacent in his roll of farm stud. If he wasn’t so cussedly vital, we might have suspected his age. Instead, like a king surveying his harem, he had become complacent. He knew that the flock was his alone and was safely so, as he was the undisputed ruler of the farm. With that, he stopped servicing the ewes with his usual alacrity.
A mighty king in his dotage can look back at the sons and daughters he has sired and know he has fulfilled his regal destiny and secured his kingdom. Rams on the other hand, are there to do a job. Albeit, one that comes naturally to them.
If they’re not performing, then there’s no baby lambs coming. And, while sheep don’t know it, unmoved as they are by the year’s trek across the calendar, lambs happen to a timetable. Not as precise as the one trains run on, but its requisites are the same.
Raddle punctuates this timetable. This rectangle of oily crayon, about the size of an old tobacco tin, is fixed on a ram’s chest by way of a harness. As the ram goes about his job, the gummy colouring is rubbed on each ewe’s back, and so the farmer knows when that sheep might be expecting her lambs. Each week the colour is changed. So as he travels from rear end to rear end, the ram leaves an unctuous map of greens, blues and oranges behind him.
In his complacency, Igor crept through the flock like a lazy pointillist. Dots of raddle appeared so slowly we might never get the full picture. At the rate Igor was operating, lambing season would stretch across several years.
To look at him, happy and relaxed, albeit with that underlying mien of anger, it was easy to see that he was asking himself (in his sheeply, non-human way): why should he apply himself with any vigour? After all, who builds warships in peacetime? Who thinks about umbrellas when it’s sunny?
Dad made some phone calls and the next Saturday a Range Rover arrived in the field, pulling a shiny, scrubbed-clean a horsebox.
“Meet Sebastian”, my father said, as he opened the box’s back ramp and let it swing on oiled hinges to the grass.
We’d never had a pedigree ram, a pedigree anything, on the farm before. Our animals were the motley rags of other flocks. The animals that other farmers didn’t have the enthusiasm to take to market were the ones that inevitably ended up grazing our fields. Sebastian trotted from the trailer like a prince, his fleece glowed golden, his manicured hooves making an elegant clip clop noise, instead of the harried clatter that usually accompanied a new animal’s entry to the flock. Sebastian was used to his personal carriage and the oohs and aahs that normally taciturn farmers would utter upon seeing him. We slipped a raddle harness on him, which he accepted with the noble indifference of a lord being dressed by his manservant. With that he trotted out into the field.
For us borrowing Sebastian was a win-win situation. Either the presence of the snotty new ram would throw Igor into a fury of sexual jealousy, whereupon he would propel himself at the ewes’ backs with renewed passion and spiteful abandon. Or Sebastian – the young and vital potentate – would tour the field, bestowing the flock with plump, regal lambs. As a family, we retreated to the fence to see what would happen.
Sebastian, his head held high, trotted further into the field. He assumed the haughty stance of all nobility surveyed his new harem. The ladies all turned to look at him and then went back to slowly cropping the grass. While the elderly flock greeted him with indifference, another gaze scorched across the grass towards him. Igor had spotted his rival. He did not like what he was seeing. To make matters worse, it was some posh git acting like he owned the place.
“Look, look,” my dad said, “he’s seen him.”
Igor lumbered into the centre of the field to face off against his new rival.
The two rams stood 10 yards apart and squared off against each other. Sebastian turned to the ladies, with a look that clearly said ‘Watch this, ladies. I’m going to batter this old…’
Clunk is the same sort of sound you achieve by clapping two big pieces of wood together – a dry, decisive plosive that hurts your ears a little bit when you hear it. It’s also the noise that two sheep skulls make when they make contact, at speed. Igor had seen his moment and took it, he attacked at full speed and head down.
Sebastian’s life as the fêted and rosetted darling of agricultural shows had not prepared him for the kind of dirty brawling that went on in the rougher pastures of Cornwall’s farms. It’s unlikely that he’d even considered the ugly old oik would even dare challenge him. Instead, the fight was what is known in fighting circles as a classic two hitter: Igor hit Sebastian; Sebastian hit the floor.
“Ah”, said my father. At the exact same moment that Igor’s head had connected with Sebastian’s, making that resolute clunk, my father was struck with an equally forceful realisation. Perhaps borrowing a costly pedigree ram might not have been such a good idea after all.
In fact, the prize ram never really recovered. He became listless and somnolent. He visibly drooped; he wouldn’t lift his head, his movements slowed. It became more and more obvious as the days passed that this wasn’t a psychic collapse caused by Sebastian’s swift and embarrassing defeat, but something physical. With that one sucker punch of a headbutt, Igor had shattered something in the other sheep’s brain.
We called the vet, but only to confirm what we already knew: Sebastian was scrambled.
Boxers who have had their brains beaten to mush get around the clock care, physiotherapists scuttle round them; specialists loom, brandishing clipboards reamed with prognosis and test results. Sheep, prize-winning or not, do not. They get loaded on to the van and make the journey from which they never come back. Which is what happened to poor Sebastian.
It maybe tempting to think of him as similar to Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his fateful tour of the Balkans – losing his life because of forces much bigger than he could hope to control or understand. You could think that, but it would be foolish. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is such singular purpose that it would not apply to the majority of people’s lives. The lesson is a simple one: sheep can be surprisingly dangerous; at least to other sheep.
As for Igor, well in some ways my dad’s plan worked. My father may have indirectly killed a prize ram, but Igor’s murderous attack proved to be a perfect cure we were looking for to solve his regal impotence. His raddle marks spread through the flock like measles spots.
The next year, my father went to market and bought a young ram – something ugly and mean spirited. Igor retired to the top pasture for good. There he stayed for another eighteen months, feigning death and then defying the crows by creaking to his feet again.
Finally, when the boot to the rump stopped working its miracle of revival and he died, journeyman shearers across the region rejoiced. Dad backed the van into Igor’s diminished kingdom and we grunted and heaved his body into the horse trailer. Each of us sweating and groaning to move the impossible lump of wool and cartilage up into the container.
He has old and he was mean – an unrepentant killer. But I like to think that across Cornwall, there are flocks of his ungainly, knobbly-faced progeny, cornering terrified ramblers against hedges, where their cries for help drift away to snag amongst the brambles and blackthorn.