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Baa Baa Black Sheep, Have You Any Wool?

I love summer – hazy, warm days with blue skies and warm breezes; endless hours of sunshine and glory with that promise of more to come. There is another reason I love summer. It brings with it the shearers.

I do not have a massive flock of sheep, which perhaps is the understatement of the year. The numbers once swelled to 4, but have settled at a more comfortable 3. My sheep flock originally started with 3 decrepit ‘North County Mules’ that I acquired from a local farmer. They had passed their breeding days and had the ominous mark of the red spot painted on their necks. I merrily assumed it was a flock mark to segregate them from the others, so they could perhaps have a little more tender care in their dotage. But sadly no, it turned out to be the mark of their demise. They were due to go into the human food chain because they could no longer bare young. They were 6 years old – old for a breeding sheep, but only half way through their natural life span. I called them Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. I love my sheep.I didn’t see Alan after that. In the distance I heard the faint drone of an engine, and above the hedges I could just make out a metal boom. And boy, what a hole he dug. It could have swallowed the Eiffel Tower.

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They are very misunderstood animals. Yes, they do try hard to die, and yes, they do have a collective mind-set to run headlong regardless of whether they need to or not, but they are kind, gentle, sensitive and have the remarkable ability to remember a human face for eight years (don’t ask me how this fact was ever ascertained…) . These 3 old ladies stayed with me for the rest of their natural life span and I loved them dearly.

It happened upon one freezing winter’s day, in the winter of 2010 that I was driving along and saw a sheep. Not an uncommon occurrence in these Northern parts, however this sheep was different. To start with he was not in a field, but had lain down in the snow by the side of the road. He was young, his fleece was falling off and he was pitifully thin. He was, however, a Hebriddean – not known for their complicity. I stopped the car. I had to think. This sheep was in a bad way, there was not a chance in Hell I was going to leave him to die. I got out of my car and the sheep buggered off at high speed in the opposite direction. Now to catch a sheep in normal circumstances, they have to be either very tame, nearly dead or herded by shepherds and sheep dogs. There was just me and my car. And a long and winding road leading to nowhere. I decided to herd the sheep with my open car door, whilst driving on the wrong side of the road in icy conditions, until I could find somewhere to corner it. The sheep was quite obliging and ran much faster than I expected for a near dead animal. A rather posh Discovery rounded the corner to find me and my battered Focus driving in a manner not quite explicit in the Highway Code. He stopped, spoke a few unmentionables and drove off. Great. Now every so often, one requires a little divine intervention. I looked up to the grey and threatening sky and said to God: ‘Look here, if you want this sheep to survive, you are going to have to help me out’. At which point the sheep took a turn to the right and headed into a very large windswept field. Shit. Not quite what I had in mind. However, in the corner of this field was a broken down trailer and the sheep took one look at me, and dived underneath it. Usain Bolt had nothing on me. I dived like a footballer under the trailer and grabbed its legs, pulling as hard as I could. The sheep seemed to accept its fate and played dead. I shoved him in the boot of my car, made a mental note to thank God and drove home. I named him Ragtag. He was in a really bad way. How he had survived as long as he had I’ll never know. Worms dripped out in liquid muck, his ribs were like a toast rack and he hung his head pitifully. He was wild though, and as soon as I let him out at home, he dived into a deep pile of hay and disappeared for days. I did, however, make a call to the local constabulary, to let them know I had stolen a sheep, and informed them at the same time, I wasn’t giving him back. They didn’t argue. Time healed, the days lengthened and Raggie, as he was affectionately known, grew and recovered. He was always a wild one, but he had an air of humility about him. There was something a bit special about that sheep.

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Now the old ladies were bonded. They didn’t take too kindly to a diminutive sick little boy. He hung around, trying his best to be part of their flock – which in time he was, but at that point I had no option but to buy him a companion. I needed another Hebriddean. I made a few calls and found a breeder up in Durham. Fabulous. He answered the phone and asked me whether I wanted a whole sheep or half of one. I explained that a whole one would be preferable as it needed to bond, run and play with a sheep I had. And it had to be breathing and upright. I set off in the Focus miles up North to the farm with my kids and chose a sheep. I popped him in the back of the car with the parcel shelf off and headed back. Now unfortunately, I have an issue with directions. I am totally clueless. I’m sure I have some synapses missing that other people have. I can’t find my way out of a paper bag. This handicap is rectified by a SatNav. I can’t live without one and often curse when riding at the horse trials and I have to navigate a course by myself. It usually ends in disaster. The problem was, I was down some country lane in County Durham and my SatNav died. There was me, my two kids and a sheep in the car. There was absolutely no chance of finding my way back. So I did what I usually do in that situation, and drove aimlessly around trying hard to get some clues. After a lifetime, I came upon Tesco’s. Thank God (again). I parked up, extracted the kids from the sheep and headed in. They sold SatNavs. I didn’t hesitate. I passed over the £100, blanked that bit out and set off with a rather disgruntled, large horned sheep. The passers-by did look a little closer than normal into the back of the car, as this poodle-like creature was trying his hardest to crash his way out of the back window with a set of horns that wouldn’t look out of place on a Water Buffalo. I smiled and waved, and put my foot down. Bobtail, as he was so aptly called, jumped like an antelope around the field when he was released and made himself at home.

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Time passed and the ebb and flow of life resumed. Life is so short and pain lasts so long. My flock dwindled. Each little flame burns brightly in my heart. Mopsy was the last of the 3 old ladies to go and Bobtail still thrives.

I had made a promise to my children that we would have 2 pet lambs as soon as there was an opportunity. It came about that I acquired Juno and Jupiter – my two little babies. These were hand reared inside the house in nappies, and are totally adored and tame. Their life revolves around polo mints, horse treats and sheep nuts. Jupiter is a big lad with a big attitude – both are Suffolk crossed with North County Mule. Jupiter spent his formative months drinking milk like his life depended on it; sleeping like the dead; or posing like a ninja before dashing at objects at high speed to send them crashing – then would passage off – head held high and little legs prancing. He was a real stallion of a lamb. I grew suspicious. We had ‘ringed’ him when he first arrived and so, in theory, he had no testicles. I remember drying him off in the kitchen and rubbing his tummy vigorously with a towel, to find a little withered scrotum in my hand, not attached to anything. ‘Oh’, I then exclaimed, and wondered what to do with it. I popped it on the breakfast bar whilst getting myself, the kids and the sheep ready for work / school/ a day sleeping and playing. It stared at me, a white elephant in the room. The cats looked interested… I hastily binned it.

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Jupiter was, in theory, castrated but he was such a boy. I asked the vets to investigate. Peter Wright put one hand on his tummy and exhaled loudly. A testicle the size of a rugby ball lay within his body cavity. He was a man, not a boy.

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Juno was a sweet little darling – absolutely angelic. I owed it to her to have a peaceful life without the amorous attentions of a red blooded tup. Jupiter was certainly top dog. He enjoyed intimidating all other lesser mortals. It is only myself and Alan that he considers superior and he often runs to me for cuddles when life gets too much. Every other human is cannon fodder. He is the archetypal guard sheep.

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I made the decision to get him re-castrated, in the vague hope that he would become a gentle, testosterone free little sheep. The ‘Yorkshire Vet’ film crew were very interested in the story and rang me to ask if they could film the whole process. Wow – to be a film star! Visions of Hollywood filtered into my brain and I willingly agreed. I unashamedly admit that I was excited. The crew gave me ½ hour notice. I was sat in a café in Thirsk with my Mum when I got the call. 30 short minutes to drive 6 miles home, turn myself into Julia Roberts, and the house into a respectable dwelling rather than a farm yard. No chance. I raced back – the Focus in overdrive, skidded into the yard, fell over the kids who were to be on tele as well and needed at least 24 hours notice to glam up, and started throwing pots and pans and general debris into cupboards. I am so glad the cameras didn’t have x-ray vision. I looked a wreck and my film-star future lay in the wardrobes and drawers upstairs. It made great TV though, and Juno and Jupiter became famous. It was the start of their TV career. They are on TV again next week for Jupiter’s ‘de-budding’.

Now as previously stated, summer brings its own duties, and one of which is shearing. I celebrate this annual event like a druid. To me, it marks a definite turning point in the seasons. In the early days, Alan and I took on the monumental task ourselves. Half a day would pass with us both taking turns to fight the sheep and strip them bare. It was a stressful event. The sheep would end up rainbow coloured – blood red with purple spray mixed with grass stains and sweat. I called it a day. I always refused to shear the black sheep anyhow as I couldn’t judge what was skin and fleece – I swear it hurt me more than them, but the horror of drawing blood on one of my babies was unbearable. The only positive aspect was I could get to kiss my incumbent babies noses as I let each one go. The sheep weren’t impressed.

I endeavoured to find myself a shearer. A professional who could strip 100 in the time it took us to do 1. I found him in a field. As I walked over to him, with several hundred sheep bleating like deranged Buddhists monks, and a team of lads looking on sceptically, he eyed me with a glint in his eye – a Geordie glint – one of those twinkles that acts like a light to a moth. I grinned inanely and asked if he sheared sheep…

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And so started a long and happy relationship with my shearer. I look forward to summer bringing with it the men whose tanned shoulders stand like girders; whose eyes twinkle in the sunshine; who take a wild 100 kg sheep and gently render it motionless and compliant; who banter and laugh and flirt, but are entirely focused on the welfare of their charges. I wish I was a sheep…

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I always celebrate this event – with some girlfriends, laughter and food – it would be wrong of me to keep this Adonis shearer to myself. They not only shear my sheep, but trim their feet, worm them, and take great care of them. They truly are amazing – in every sense of the word… and my sheep love them.

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