NEARLY 50 YEARS have passed since I last tended sheep. A lot has changed over those 50 years. Almost everything, in fact: technology, scientific research, medicine, education, industrial production, communication, transportation, international trade, sports, music, entertainment…
Sheep, not so much. And that is a good because in this troubled and turbulent age I need assurance that some things quietly and steadfastly endure
I remember sheep being a lot of work: vaccinating, worming, shearing, spraying for flies, checking eyes and hooves, and fitting a breeding (marking) harness onto the rams. That was a circus act!
But my neighbor, who owns the flock, does all of those chores. Our only duties are carrying a mixed bucket of oats, ground corn, and sweet feed up to the feed bunk each morning, and toting a few buckets of water to the stock tank. That’s not too difficult, except for the flock’s no-rules game of rugby when we climb over the gate with the feed bucket.
The flock of 21 ewes and lambs grazing our hillside pasture are Suffolks, some purebred and some crossbred. No rams as of yet, but considering the way the ewes headbutt me and push me around I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with a ram.
Floppy-eared, black-faced and black-legged, big-bodied, white wooled, and always hungry. That’s the Suffolk breed. As with all breeds of sheep, they eat constantly and have devoured about a third of the vegetation in our three-acre pasture in a little more than two weeks. Due to all this work as mammalian mowing machines, they poop a lot, too. Especially at the gates to the pasture. Wear rubber boots.
Knowing almost nothing about the history of sheep breeds, I did some research. The Suffolk breed originated in the late 18th century in England, of course, in the county of Suffolk which is in the northeast part of the country and is bordered by the North Sea. Suffolks are raised primarily as a meat animal, secondarily for wool. The British enjoy mutton. Americans as a rule do not. Lamb chops, yes, mutton no.
The name “Suffolk” was first used in 1797, according to the breed registry, and it was recognized as a distinct breed in 1810 but not generally known by its the present name until 1859. By the end of the 19th century Suffolk rams had become the principal sire of ewes in Scotland. Suffolks have been exported to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Italy, Kenya, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and the United States, where it was introduced 1888 in New York.
Suffolks are described as “a common breed of domestic sheep. They are polled, and have black open faces along with black legs and white-woolled bodies. Suffolks are considered a large breed of sheep, their large frame and muscular bodies make them an ideal breed for meat production, however; they are also good for wool production as well. Suffolk rams are commonly used as a terminal sire on cross-bred ewes due to their ability to produce off-spring with excellent growth and carcass traits.”
The claim of “large frame and muscular bodies” I can vouch for. The ewes have nearly toppled me a dozen times.
In this time of COVID-19 pandemic we are self-isolating on the farm. These seven months have been a time of trial and anxiety, and the mornings I can spend lazily watching our flock is stress-relieving and restful and wonderfully bucolic. June and July have been hot and exceptionally humid in the North Country, and an hour’s lounging in the shade of the walnut and box elder trees overhanging the fence on the south side of the pasture is a comfort both physical and spiritual.
I pretend I am somewhere in the west of England despite the heat of the late morning sun and the out-of-place woodlands that would never interrupt the sweep of the moor, and as I look out over my flock I can pretend that I am the farmer Gabriel Oak from Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd.” I walk the perimeter of the hillside pasture with my hard-working border collie (actually, my bird dog Abbey who has no interest in sheep) and a peace settles upon me, a feeling that life will be good again after these long months of worry.
At times I lean against the fence with my imagined shepherd’s staff, ponder the fortunate and rewarding life I have lived with my beautiful blonde wife and family, and I whisper, “At home by the fire, whenever I look up, there you will be, and whenever you look up, there I shall be.”
This flock of sheep has become a remembrance of times past and a promise of times to come. I listen to them talk, and their baa and maa and bleat speak of better days ahead.
More essays and stories about life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page