My husband likes to call us hobby farmers. Asked recently what exactly that meant, he replied, “Oh, it means we are farmers who have absolutely no idea what we’re doing”. It got a laugh, but it’s also a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. We’re not really farmers – some home-grown veggies and a bunch of hens don’t count – at least we weren’t until the arrival of the sheep.
For some time now the husband has harboured a somewhat romantic dream of part-time sheep-keeping. We live on the side of the Galty Mountains, an ideal location. We also have a lot of grass that needs cutting or eating if the place is not to run wild. So when local Christmas tree farmers who kept sheep for their inter-pine weeding skills, announced they were getting out of that end of the business and selling their flock, they promised to keep us two.
Shropshire sheep have black legs and heads, sturdy woolly white bodies and intelligent faces. It’s easy to fall in love with them. They arrived in a flurry of recently-shorn fluff and gambolling limbs out of the back of a trailer and into our newly sheep-proofed field next to the house. We spent the next few days ooohing and aaahing at their peaceful presence and admiring the pleasingly rustic addition they made to the view as they selected buttercups and clover to chomp from among the thistles and docks. It was all very romantic, but after less than a week, one of them was limping.
The husband Googled “sheep, sore leg” and came up with foot rot, because that’s what you do when you’re a hobby farmer. A call to Caplice’s Christmas tree farm resulted in matter-of-fact instructions to feel the offending leg to see if it was hot, administer some kind of rub and inject with penicillin if necessary. Feel the leg? Inject with penicillin? The problem was we couldn’t catch them. We couldn’t even get close enough to give them a pet.
“Animals like that should have a purpose,” said my friend the vet. “Their purpose is to eat grass,” I offered. She shook her head. “Sheep are for lambs [read meat], or wool. They’re not pets.” Apparently they are also prone to foot rot, and maggots.
Horrified by the idea of a sick animal we couldn’t catch to treat and wary of the fact that we may have bitten off more than we could chew on the hobby farming front, we hung our heads and asked the original owners if they’d be interested in taking them back. They may have seen us coming. They hadn’t even cashed the cheque.
They returned with their trailer and their son and the five of us sweated and ran as we attempted to coerce the animals (definitely not pets) back into the vehicle in which they’d arrived. No joy. A determined sheep can escape through the rapidly closing gap between two people in a large field without a second thought. A determined sheep puts two eyes on the ditch and barrels through; where one goes the other follows, like sheep.
“How did you catch them at your place?” asked my panting husband. “Oh, we’ve spent up to an hour just chasing them,” came the reply. “What?” “Well, we never had a sheep dog.” What they did have was a sheep pen, into which they could be coaxed with nuts; something we had neglected to build.
We stopped chasing after twenty minutes. The sheep were exhausted. We now have two sheep we no longer own but cannot catch. Oh and the limp went away by itself. Yep, the hobby farming’s going well. We might try pigs next.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland Comment section on 3 August 2014.