Sheep vs everything else in the thunderditch - Tactical Ninja
Dec. 19th, 2013
09:59 am - Sheep vs everything else in the thunderditch
Yesterday I saw a car with a bumper sticker that proclaimed
SAY NO TO KILLER ROBOTS
Now, in the context of some of the other stickers on this car, I am pretty sure it's referring to army drones. However, on face value I find myself wondering who wouldn't get in behind that sentiment. Like,
KILLER ROBOTS NEED LOVE TOO
EQUAL RIGHTS FOR KILLER ROBOTS
ADOPT A KILLER ROBOT TODAY!
Yeah, I know, there's some hippie out there who's got tired of hugging trees and at this moment is starting a support group for the poor misunderstood killer robots. I'm sure of it. But other than them, do we really need to be admonished to avoid encouraging killer robots?
Maybe we do. After all, Google has bought Boston Dynamics. I find that vaguely disturbing myself...
So channelinglucy asked me to write about sheep. Surely that'd be easy, yeah? I mean, I write about sheep all the time. But to me, it's such a broad topic that I would be here for a very long time writing 'about sheep'. So I needed to narrow it down.
I could tell you that sheep are ruminants, which means they chew their cud and have four stomachs which are called the omasum, abomasum, rumen, and reticulum. And that of those, the rumen is the only one that's easy to find inside their insides when you kill one, because there aren't four little bags strung along a digestive tract. There's one big one that looks like a stomach (the rumen) and three little ones that could be spleens, pancreases, bladders or just random bits of flesh to look at, unless you know what you're looking for. And they are pretty much all in a bunch, so you could be forgiven for thinking they are all one organ.
I could tell you that they are one of the earliest animals to have been domesticated as people took advantage of their natural flocking behaviour to farm them, and that prior to the widespread use of iron, their wool was plucked out rather than shorn. Which isn't as bad as it sounds, because in their natural, non-genetically-interfered-with state, olden days sheep shed their fleece naturally in spring anyway.
I could tell you that there are over 200 breeds of sheep, over 60 of which are native to the British Isles. I could tell you that weaving looms were the first computers and so in a roundabout way, that conversation I had last night about the crossover between sheep and hackers isn't as far out of reality as it seemed at the time.
However, the thing I really want to write about is "Why sheep?" I mean, there are so many animals out there that are more glamorous, bigger, stronger, more beautiful, whatever. This is why when you get a bunch of fluffy pagans together talking about their Power Animals, you hear a lot about leopards and stallions and eagles, but few people claim the sheep as theirs. Likewise, people don't like being compared with sheep*. Fact is, sheep are about as smart as the lower primates, smarter than rats and some other animals that we view as intelligent, like dogs.
But for me, it didn't start with sheep. I was into horses, like many young women. As a teenager my dream future would involve finding and rescuing mistreated horses, then training them up to excel in a discipline, and selling them to forever homes for loads of money.
However, I'm from Yorkshire stock and nothing if not pragmatic. I knew even then that there's no money in horses, that I wasn't sufficiently independently wealthy to spend my life as a charity, and that I couldn't ride well enough to produce well-trained horses consistently. I also realised that I liked the husbandry aspect of having horses as much as riding them. And that the place to find horses was on farms.
So I altered my aim a bit and decided I wanted to be a farmer. This was still pretty unrealistic given the cost of getting into farming and that I left school into an environment where farming was really struggling** due to the consequences of floating the dollar and removing trade protections as part of the Great Neoliberal Agenda of the 1980s. This meant that the kind of farms that had horses were disappearing fast as high country leases weren't renewed, many farmers lost their land which was bought up and refenced in electric for dairy or finishing, and the days of riding the hills tending your flocks were pretty much over. Add to this that I wasn't allowed to do agriculture in school because I was a girl, and that everyone told me if I wanted to be a farmer I should marry one***, and I knew I was pushing shit uphill with a pointy stick.
However, that didn't stop me and I spent the next 10 or so years trying to get a foot in the door of the farming industry. I was mostly funnelled into shearing gangs, where I spent a lot of time observing sheep under the most stressful conditions you could put them into. I saw them get the better of people on numerous occasions. The mark of a good presser seems to be whether or not they can pen up sheep effectively without losing their temper, which says something about how hard it is to get sheep to do anything they don't want to.
And I started to like them. I learned a lot about how different breeds behave when shorn, what their wool is like, what their body shape is, how they cope with stress. I learned to shear them because shearing was mesmerising and I've never been much of a watcher, I'm a doer.
And in between this, I grubbed thistles, broke in horses and generally hung out a lot on farms, when people would let me. So I got to spend time with sheep in their normal habitat, becoming part of the scenery in a paddock full of, say, lambing ewes. I'd be grubbing thistles and watching them out of the corner of my eye, observing their behaviour and interaction. And I developed a respect for them. Then I developed a liking for them.
And when I finally got a break into the world of shepherding, and started handling them in earnest with teams of dogs, they became my favourite animal. They're smarter than horses, and more useful. And, in my opinion at least, far more interesting socially. Not least because they are so much like people. I learned patience handling sheep - both in allowing them to take their time in the muster, and in not losing my cool when they react to stress with violence. Because there will always be more sheep.
And because I'm mouthy, I started sharing my admiration for sheep with the people around me. Which led to people starting to associate me with this admiration for sheep, and then people started giving me sheep stuff.
Because this is New Zealand, there is a lot of sheep stuff to be had.
I haven't counted, or even collected all my sheep stuff into one place. But as a rough estimate I'd say I have about 15 books, 10 or so cuddlly toys, numerous pictures, three or four clothing items, and about 25 other miscellaneous bits and bobs such as pens, keyrings and tins with sheep on. From where I'm sitting I can see a coffee mug with sheep on it that a colleague gave me, a calendar picture of lambs that someone stuck on my partition under my name (and another one that's a print of a famous painting), and a bobbly pen-end on a spring that someone gave me years ago. This is my life. There's never a sheep thing far from my sight.
I am fully aware that when I'm old I will probably be known as The Sheep Lady and live in a house that's a museum to sheep-related trivia. I am ok with this and will probably milk it for all it's worth. Because after 30 years of spending more time with sheep than most, I think they are awesome. Based in experience.
Still wouldn't claim them as my Power Animal though.
* In my opinion, this is probably because the truth hurts. People are a lot like sheep, at least in their social structure. And that's not that ridiculous either, considering that we share an evolutionary trait of being without the natural defences many other animals have (teeth, claws, fast running), and rely on being in groups for our survival. No shame in that. We could do a lot worse tbh.
** Sheep were worth $1 each and the news was full of footage of farmers shooting their sheep and bulldozing them into holes into the ground because that was cheaper than selling them for meat. If you want to know where all these chains of investment farms came from, it was the people who still had money at the end of the 80s, buying land in mortgagee sales from those who'd gone broke.
*** This is bullshit. Marrying a farmer would make me a farmer's wife. I wanted to be the protagonist in my own story, not the sidekick in someone else's. I don't see why so many people fail to understand this.