by Ian Sherry of Rostrevor, N. Ireland
I recall 30 small mixed farms in the valley, each with twenty Mourne ewes. Ewes that for the most part grazed and thrived on the heather, rough grass, and rocks of Loughin More. A thousand acres of undivided shares where each small flock had over generations established their own pasture. Their own unfenced bailiwick within which they stayed. Over the years the structure of the valley has changed. Many of the residents are professionals with no links to farming – the internet underpinning the increasing trend of working from home. Apart from myself (tipping along) my six neighbours who keep sheep would have four to five hundred in their flock. Suffolks, Texels and other heavy weight breeds that wouldn’t thrive on the mountain. They are lambed in purpose built sheds and transported to pasture on more fertile ground.
Throughout my career as a land surveyor I still maintained my seven fields (six acres) and a mountain right. It’s two miles up the valley from the village where I now live. In retirement I continue to (albeit at a gentler pace) do what I’ve done all my life. I like a nice cob to work in the garden and hack on the mountain, a good dog and a dozen Mourne ewes. They are the same breed of sheep that have been in my family for generations. I consider them handsome, I know every turn of them, and I’ve never kept anything else. In the 1950s the Mourne ewe was small and hardy and prospered without supplement between mountain and field. In a snowfall they’d eat the fresh shoots of whins. I just remember the early 50s movement to improve the breed. The criterion: a ewe should be tall with clean black legs, a ‘sprickle’ face, a long snout to eat between the rocks, and have a full white fleece. They must be of sound conformation, have a good mouth and pleasing curved horns. My ewes lamb around St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) and it’s my practice to keep them from a week or so before that in the garden beside the old house.
This March 25th I arrived to find a two year old ewe fresh lambed and bleating hysterically with her head thrust in the air. Right up like the reindeer in the painting ‘Monarch of the Glen.’ Her behaviour was so extreme I found it unnerving. She had at her foot fine twin lambs; one that she wanted to kill. A forlorn rejected spirit with blood on its nose. Downhearted, I picked up the two lambs drawing solace from her following me closely into the kitchen of the old house. Wanting to do as ‘little heavy lifting’ as possible (my neighbour Paschal kindly doses and clips for me) I quickly made a pen with straw bales and a hurdle at an acute angle against the wall. There, giving her enough rope (not to hang herself) to eat, drink, and lie down, I tied her. The lambs had enough room to come up her sides, wiggle their tails, and suck. Late that night when I came back to replenish water, meal, hay, ivy (I’m a great believer in ivy), all was well.
Early the next morning I arrived to lift my two well fed lambs out of the pen and untie the ewe. Leaving her in the pen, the two lambs sporting around the kitchen, contented and well. They could come over to the side of the hurdle but not get in, and the ewe couldn’t get out. Then in a couple of hours, perhaps three, I came back to further my plan. I put one lamb in with the ewe, she was delighted with it, nosing it in to suckle, licking its tail – so that was the favoured lamb I conjectured. I then took out that lamb and put in the other lamb – she done the same. And then it dawned on me – this ewe for all her mothering instincts and supply of milk couldn’t cope. She simply couldn’t contend with two lambs. Well not at first! Because in a very short space of time, three or four in-and-out sessions and one overnight restraint, she was delighted with both lambs and went from the wee garden at the house to further pasture with the rest of the flock. Yes, I know! In a life time of working with sheep, of holding and wrestling and doing ‘the Divil and all’ when I couldn’t, in the end, get the ewe to take up with the lamb – but this time it worked; so Harrah!
L.P. Hartley said ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ And indeed they do. As a child in my grandmother’s home, there was at lambing time always an orphan lamb or two in the kitchen, in a wooden box on the hearthstone beside the open fire. We were very close to our livestock then. Those lambs would be nurtured with a bottle until they were strong enough to be further bottle fed in the wee garden at the side of the house. There’s a Scottish proverb, ‘Give your enemy a pet lamb’ (and it may well be true). ‘It will fully occupy them, try their patience, frustrate their endeavour and finally break their heart when despite their best efforts there’s a good chance it won’t survive.’ Well my pet lamb did survive and went on to prosper. A ewe lamb from my granny’s that I can still see reflected in my sheep today.