Friday, 2 September 2011

Life and death on a Cornish farm

I once helped a sheep give birth.  If you imagine the sheep could have done it all by herself, you don't know modern farming.  Today's sheep tend to give birth to twins (the farmers' version of "buy one, get one free") and they tend to do it in winter, in the middle of the night.

I lived on a Cornish farm for many years without farming it myself. The best of both worlds.  But one night came a knock on my door. It was the farmer - let's call her Cheryl because that was her name - and she needed my help because one of her ewes was having a bit of trouble.  Cheryl was one half of a pair of hobby farmers. In order to indulge his love of farming, her husband worked all week at ICI, leaving his wife to get her hands dirty.

On with the wellies and out into the night.  I straddled the sheep as if she were a small horse.  A sheep is a powerful creature, and never more so than when they are in pain at the back end and want to get as far away from it as they can. I gripped her flat, woolly back and hung on, while Cheryl worked away at the business end.  I talked to that sheep over the next half hour as if she were a woman in labour.  Push, push, good girl, one more for me...after a lot of bloody stuff you wouldn't want to know about a pair of trembling, bleating lambs lay in the straw.

New life, like death, is so powerful that you never forget being in its presence.  The ewe could have died.  The lambs could have died.  But here they were, already understanding the basic rules of life: drink, bleat, trust mother, keep away from humans unless absolutely necessary.  Because in a few short months, those darling little lambs would be off to market.  Somebody ate them - but not me.