A bucolic scene: a dozen Suffolk lambs grazing the hillside beside their mother ewes, their gentle bleats and baas a sort of pastoral music, their leaps and head-butts so much exuberant frolicking on a rustic playground, their sleepy huddles in the shade of the trees at midday a soporific for my worried mind and weary body. Peaceful, tranquil, serene, soothing.
Until you try to catch one of the little demons.
Summer’s end was nearing, and the time had come for the lambs to leave the pasture, the wether lambs to be fattened for market and the ewe lambs to be sold for breeding stock. Round them up, herd them into a catch pen, and load them into a livestock hauler. Frisky little balls of wool with perky ears and open, guileless faces – how difficult could that be?
On a hot Wednesday afternoon we hauled four 10-foot steel gates to the top of the pasture and set up a sturdy catch pen. We moved the feed bunk inside the enclosure and poured half a bucket of oats and ground corn in the trough so the flock would not be shy about entering.
Hearing the clank of the metal bucket against the feed bunk, the ewes abandoned their lambs and with much loud baa-ing and maa-ing came charging up the hillside to crowd into the catch pen. It was a rugby scrum around the feed trough. Curious but not caught up in the feed-madness of the ewes, the lambs held back for a while, and then all but a few tentatively pushed in to join their mothers.
This corralling of the flock, I realized, would be a cinch. Come morning, all I had to do was partially open one of the catch-pen gates, lead the flock into the pen with a bucket of feed, pour it into the trough, wait until all the ewes and lambs were gorging themselves on oats, then unobtrusively step outside and close the gate.
That was the plan. But as the Scots poet Robert Burns warned us:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley
And being a Scotsman from the rocky Highlands of the Alba sheep country, it seems likely that Burns had cantankerous ewes and lambs in mind when he wrote those words.
Come morning, I dawdled over a second cup of coffee and read the morning news online before I started up the hill and through the pasture gate with my bucket of oats. That delay was unfortunate because about the time I was rattling my bucket and enticing the flock to come up the hillside for their morning feed and into the catch-pen, my helpers arrived. Riding a four-wheeler. A noisy four-wheeler with a small livestock trailer in tow.
For six weeks, the sheep have not had a motor vehicle intrude on their peaceful pasture. As the four-wheeler roared up the lane, they balked. I rattled the bucket for all I was worth and dumped oats and corn and sweet feed into the trough. Half a dozen ewes and five lambs tentatively entered the catch-pen, and I slammed shut the gate – a little to vigorously perhaps, because the rest of the flock scattered.
We caught and loaded the five lambs into the trailer, set loose the half dozen ewes, and my cohorts in kidnapping departed the pasture. A half hour later I unwisely thought I could coax the rest of the flock into the catch-pen with another bucket of feed, and I hauled it up to the feed bunk from the shed. But even an animal as clueless as a sheep gets wise to the game. No amount of calling and banging bucket against the feed bunk would trick them again.
The lambs and ewes took refuge in the thicket of buck thorn brush and scraggly box elder trees where they like to spend their afternoons lounging in the shade and nibbling a few leaves. They stared at me placidly, knowing they were safe from other attempts at capture. I tried sprinkling a line of oats from the edge their brushy lair, up the hillside, into the catch-pen, and managed to trap two ewes and one lamb. Slow learners.
Another trio of lambs was lying down in a huddle in the shade of the brushy copse, and I slowly crawled in, stretched out full length, and with soothing words I gabbed one by the right hind leg. I thought he might concede, but a 50-pound wether lamb does not go gentle into that good-night.
There was a brief but frantic tussle during which I got a mouthful of dirt and manure. I grabbed hold of the lamb’s other hind leg and wondered what the next step in my abduction plan would be. I struggled into a crouching position and at that point realized my boot had come untied and my foot was about to slip out.
Unwilling to step with a stocking-clad foot on the punji stakes of clipped-off buck thorn stumps, I hollered “Time out!” and let go of one madly pumping hind leg to adjust my boot. The lamb did not respect my time-out request and kicked himself free. Unsporting.
I recalled an exchange between Union Generals William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant at nightfall of the first day of the Battle of Shiloh when they had suffered a near-defeat by Confederate troops. “Well, Grant, we’ve had a hell of a day,” said Sherman. Grant took a draw on his cigar. “Yep. Lick ’em tomorrow though,” he said.
Sage advice. Next morning early, I returned to the battlefield with another bucket of feed and walked into the catch pen. Having forgotten the ruse of the previous day, the flock crowded in – all but two lambs that hesitated by the gate. Abbey, my bird dog who usually has zero interest in the comings and goings of sheep, rushed forward and barked at them twice. Surprised by this turn of canine attention, the duo fled into the pen, I closed the gate, and the war was over.
Loading the rest of the lambs into the livestock trailer was easy, because I let someone else do it. Yesterday’s experience had taught me that I was no match for a kicking, squirming lamb.
As the trailer disappeared down the lane, I disassembled the catch-pen, sat on the feed bunk, lit a celebratory cigar, and looked out upon the field of victory. I blew out a puff of smoke that hung in the air. “Yep. Lick ’em tomorrow though,” I said. These wily sheep were no match for the perseverance of a clever shepherd-general like me.
“Baa!” bleated one of the ewes.
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