Life is an extraordinary process and nothing is more remarkable than its inception. It’s a great shame that in our hung-up society we choose either to ignore it or, worse, make smutty jokes about it – and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone else. Incidentally, did you hear the one about the brain-dead Tory politician who has proposed to reduce the time limit on abortions to just 12 weeks? The Taliban have an even better answer: stone the mother and her child to death. That clears up all moral ambiguities.
In case you haven’t guessed already, these rantings have been inspired by what happened on the farm yesterday, when we gathered all the sheep into the yard and divided them into their three blood-lines or families. Having done that, we then introduced the ewes to the appropriate ram, or tup. In most commercial flocks blood-lines don’t matter a great deal, as the main ‘product’ of the farm are meat lambs and in-breeding is rarely a problem, especially if large numbers of rams are being used. But we aim to produce breeding ewes and our customers wouldn’t thank us if we sold them sheep with the potential to produce lambs with cleft palates, blindness and other deformities brought about through in-breeding. So we take care.
Currently we have three blood-lines, known by the parent ram’s name or nick-name: Brian (after the farmer who sold us his grand-father, ten years ago); Corby and Glen (named after the Corby Glen sheep fair where we bought their fathers, about six years ago). Incidentally the Corby Glen sheep fair is one of Britain’s oldest – read all about it in The Birth of Modern Britain (p. 215 and colour plate).
Animals have dignity. Maybe that’s because they don’t have large egos, although of course they do have personalities. I’ve always found that tups and ewes are very dignified in the way they go about the business of procreation. The tups don’t conceal the fact that they are as horny as hell: they curl their lips, they paw the ground and they jump on the backs of everything that moves –or doesn’t. The ewes that are ready to receive (i.e. are in season) stand around looking unconcerned, occasionally letting slip some highly scented (to the tup) urine, while chewing the cud. While the act of tupping is actually taking place they sometimes briefly cease from chewing the cud, but otherwise they might as well be queuing in the canteen for a cup of tea and a buttered scone. And then, miracle of miracles, almost exactly 21 weeks later, they produce lambs.
We put the tups in yesterday, which means that our first lambs will appear on or about March 2nd, 2013. I wish all of life were that predictable. Which brings me to a final point: language. People who live in towns don’t realise that using human terms to describe animals isn’t appropriate. I hate it when I’m asked if our ewes are ‘pregnant’. Sheep are never pregnant: they’re ‘in lamb’. Sheep off-spring are lambs, not babies. Sheep don’t have sex: they tup. They don’t have boobs: they have udders, or bags. The ram doesn’t have a penis: he has a pizzle. And so on. I don’t expect people from outside farming to be familiar with all these terms, but it would be good if our education system could teach children that such language exists and that it has a purpose, which is to ensure that humans and animals retain their separate identity – and, with it, their dignity.