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Sheep, and the ways in which they are not what you expect.

This story is about my sheep friends. About how animals, sheep in particular, are so much not what we tend to think they are.

And how that can be a fine thing.

I love sheep, and their fluff with its unimaginably magical qualities and unimaginable uniqueness. Every. Fleece. Is different.

Their soft nibbly noses. Infinite range of personalities.

 

How they only have one row of teeth in the front, in their lower jaw, so they rip upwards instead of biting.

Someone I knew invited a group of school kids to his place, and peeled back a friendly sheep’s top lip, to show the gummy absence of teeth.

To the childrens’ horror.

He explained that someone had been tipping Coke in his dam and the sheep had lost their teeth as a result.

 

This sheepiness and fluffiness is such a happy combination of things.

There will be other stories in this space about how my wooly friends are part of my permaculture based system. How their fleeces are of this place, how I keep them healthy with a system devised by genius wholistic thinker Pat Coleby, and how very much all the plants and animals here are integrated with each other, as in any other ecological system.

 

But this is about Molly, Butty, Luna and Elsie, Mumma, Velvet, Moon, Star, Puzzle, Beatrice and Rain.

Anxious Henrietta with her funny short horns and striped face like a wild sheep, who died while evacuated when the fire was looming.

There is never a completely right decision.

 

Molly is my second greediest sheep. Her table manners are appalling, and involve unspeakably uncouth things done in the excitement of dinner time (you really don’t want details). The thing with Molly (there are quite a few things, but this is one of them) is that she was hand raised on a fine wool Merino stud, and she largely prefers human people to sheep people.

I bought her, so she didn’t go to the ‘meat paddock’. Her time lived in our small back yard before the move here taught me, disappointingly, that sheep do eat eucalyptus trees. And peach trees. Anything really.

 

Molly’s great love in life though, is the hand held carrot.

A carrot in a feed bucket or on the ground is a truly second rate carrot. It merits a sniff. Maybe a nibble or even one half hearted crunch.

 

But the only kind of carrot that elicits the joyful greedy vaccuming style of consumption that only Molly is capable of is the Hand Held Carrot. It must be held right to the end, too. A carrot mostly consumed from the hand, then dropped to the ground for her to finish, immediately becomes invisible, and no longer even really food at all.

Then desperate baaing and sniffing indicates that she is REALLY keen on another HHC. Now, please.

Or not please. Just, now.

 

Once a year Molly is, against her will but in the interests of her health, shorn. Her fleece is incredibly fine, soft and lustrous. The crimp is so tiny and fine that it glitters. It makes the most beautiful felted shapes and prints beautifully with local plants; colours that glow.

 

My second greediest sheep is Butty.

He really only misses out on the Greediest title because his other confronting personality traits eclipse his greed for food.

He is extremely affectionate and loving. In a rather menacing aggressive way that makes giving him a nice scratch mandatory rather than optional.

He is also an outstandingly well covered animal. If there’s a Heaviest Sheep contest anywhere, point me at it, Butty will be a shoe in.

 

He started out life as ‘Loveheart’. Named at 4 weeks old by my sweet (then 5 year old) son who bottle fed the poor orphan lamby. Lamby kept all his bits.

Lamby grew, and soon had a head of steel, a personality like a Mack truck, and a flippant disregard for fencing, which saw him suddenly re named by his young human carers.

 

Butty would appear in the garden, in the sheds, on the driveway, on the porch, in the laundry checking on the progress of the washing.

Trap trapping through the house, invited in by the dog, who can open doors by standing up and pulling the handle down.

 

He would advance on the kids, slowly and inexorably, rock head down. He loomed over us, pooing and butting and bashing his way through every aspect of our lives until at around 12 months old and at a hefty 80 kgs in weight, a visit from the vet removed the source of all that insane testosterone and with it the by then outright dangerous aggression.

He became quite nice.

But he is still very much a force, a massive wooly boulder shoving his way into the feed bucket before I can get through the gate, pushing the 16hh horse roughly aside to stand up and steal her food, and generally battering his way through life.

 

His best friend is Rhyme, my very old horse. On stinking hot days, in the cold rain, they stand together out in the elements, completely needlessly while the others shelter under trees, at the point closest to where the next meal will emerge from.

A shared interest.

Butty’s fleece is long, white, extremely lustrous and has a bigger, open wavy crimp. His merino mum and Border Leicester dad each contributed fine fine qualities. It throws itself on the spinning wheel, and added to felt gives bold clear waves that take plant dyes and shine them back at you.

 

My most loved sheep is Elsa, a coloured merino ewe who was not hand raised and was quite wild and unhandled when she came to live here, but who over two years gradually came to me when I sat quietly in the paddock. First she anxiously took food from my hand with her soft dark lips and raced away chewing.

Then I could touch her silky black nose. Then scratch her face very quietly.

Now her fear of me is gone completely. I scratch her head and neck, and we are friends. On her terms, by her choice.

Her fleece is soft, melting soft, with shades of grey and black and white that meld and blend to the most undescribeable delicious effect.

Velvet is flighty, nervous, highly strung, a soft grey brown merino girl. Beatrice and Rain are the daughters of Butty…Beatrice is friendly, bold but gentle, the daughter of Luna, with her skewed crescent moon face on grey, black and white merino fleece. Rain is aloof and disinterested in human people like her grey corriedale mother Mumma. Happy go lucky Puzzle is white with a big black spot splashed over her shoulders; the daughter of Star, a beautiful grey corriedale.

 

As a group they are citizens of this place, with a kind of ownership, and workers. Kept healthy with minerals and good feed grown on good soil; this is the green triangle and living is generally good. But the responsibility for their welfare, given that I keep them restrained behind fences, is entirely mine.

By keeping animals we form a unique relationship with them.

The assumption of a grave responsibility for their welfare as we take away their agency and freedom to live the lives normal to their kind. It is a pact, and I take this responsibility as seriously as the joy that their company and their beautiful magical fleeces give me.

Working with their fleeces, the undescribeable range of textures and shines and softnesses, the sheepy lanolin smell, is a reminder of all this, and of the land that ultimately grew them. The infinite interactions with all the other creatures here, kept and wild.

And it feels to be the most profound kind of privilege.

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