If there was anything that I came to understand more profoundly this year it would have to be the power of instinct: mine, our animals and the forces of ideologies of which I agree and disagree. I reread my year end column from 2011 which reminded me of where I was 12 months ago; it helps me better appreciate where I am today. It seems we did not do too badly, after all, and it’s all because both Andy and I recognize the power of instinct.
Before we got sheep people kept saying “sheep are stupid”; and chickens are stupid; and nature needs to be mowed and paved and tamed and sprayed…I could go on. I think that these naysayers have been wrong largely because they never took the time to notice instinct. Sheep eat grass and in order to do so effectively they need to move forward, that’s what they do. It is smart if you live off of grass; and if you don’t want to live around your own manure.
Chickens eat grass, too, and move about in search of it and other protein sources (and away from their manure): they are maybe better omnivores then humans. Don’t judge the knuckle head moves like getting jammed into a roll of wire fencing or going broody. When we decry the instinct of an animal we do so in an anthropomorphic righteousness that deems any behavior outside of what we want “stupid.” This year consider it otherwise.
Last December I wanted to raise chickens for eating; and last December we had 10 pregnant ewes that I hung my hopes on delivering lambs in April. They delivered in so many ways. We had 13 lambs (I know, we were bound for some trouble!) We lost our first born to a crushing accident which taught me lambs will get into trouble if there is anything in their midst that might allow for trouble. I was sick to my stomach over my oversight as their shepherd. We lost another little girl to parasites, which is the number one killer of sheep, second to domestic dogs. I finally got the hang of it a raised some happy, healthy animals for a fall harvest. The lessons learned were about good animal husbandry, protection, life, death and the completion of a life cycle meant for food. This year I learned more about death than the average year! My first crop of lambs would, of course, be harvested for meat. This was why we got into the sheep business, after all.
The challenge of 2012 was to grow food beyond vegetables, fruit and eggs. We wanted meat to make the offering complete; and to fully use our gift of land. We harvested 6 ram lambs and nearly 150 chickens for our customers and ourselves. My friend Angie said “you have done what you set out to do,” as I cried in anticipation of taking our lambs to be processed. I did not cry over the chickens because it was very hard and dirty work during a recording breaking hot summer. I did love every one of those chickens but the human emotion is stronger (which is our instinct) when a living being has eyes and lashes and a personality that we can more closely relate. The chickens had personality, to be sure, but the lambs knew how to manipulate me with more finesse. The totality of the farm was cared for with great affection; they lambs were sweet to me, the broilers not necessarily so, they just wanted me to feed and water them. I suppose the lambs did, too, but they also courted me in a conscious effort to be favored. Favored here, is a lambs’ instinct to get food and affection. So perhaps we are more alike than we ever imagined?
Early on in my shepherd training I was instructed that lambs forget their mothers a few months after being weaned. I do not agree: #0010 (also known as Violet) ran straight to her mother, dropped to her knees and tried to nurse when they were reunited in a pasture several months after weaning. Her instinct was no doubt keen but mama was long dried up. To this day Violet and her mother Brownie are still best of friends. And, with them as a guide, we will raise more food for local tables in 2013. Happy New Year!