Graffiti Sheep

On Tuesday the 25th of February, at 9am GMT, the parallel universes of Farming and Ineptitude collided.

I don’t usually help out with our livestock – for good reason – so when opportunity knocked I was most pleased.

The Glengorm farm is a man-zone of tractors, male posturing and humorous banter. It is a place where man-points are scored by being the muddiest, lifting the heaviest, or maintaining a grip on the wildest.

[*The only notable exception is at lambing time, when it swiftly fills with little girls.]

Recently, Angus worked two full weeks without realising that his leg was broken – this display of resilience was much admired. Many man-points were scored.

But on the 25th of February, The Scanner was due. In farming, this is equivalent to being visited by a wizard.

The Scanner comes over annually from New Zealand, on a two-month migratory passage that sweeps through the sheep farms of Scotland. He is an important carrier of sheep-related intelligence and an enthusiastic participant in humorous banter; but his primary purpose is to count unborn lambs.

In the days leading up to the arrival of The Scanner [who, by the way, is called Daniel and is a thoroughly nice man] all the female sheep are gathered from the hill and brought to the small fields surrounding the farm and fank.

Watching Daniel don a shoulder-length pink glove and a certain amount of  gel, I thought the Glengorm Girls might be in for an uncomfortable couple of hours. However, mercifully, he is also equipped with a small hand-held ultrasound device which is placed on their bellies – externally (!)

The sheep come into the fank in groups. Once the first group was in, I was shown how to mark each ewe [on Mull, this is pronounced to rhyme with “cow” ] according to the number of lambs she has within her. My demo took place on a fence post, and was done with spray in a jolly shade of purple.

Nodding to The Scanner with manly bonhomme, I stationed myself next to “The Shedder”. The Shedder is a small standing area – sort of like a cattle crush – in which individual sheep can be contained whilst scanning or anything else of that nature takes place.

As each ewe is separated from the group, it enters a narrow passage. This passage is called “The Race” [on Glengorm, at least]. Standing ready at The Shedder, I didn’t fully appreciate why.

Blackface sheep have a reputation for being wild. Contrary to popular belief, both ewes and tups [the term for a male sheep] have an impressive set of horns. Watching the first expectant mother line itself up to the race, I began to understand that she would reach terminal velocity long before she reached me. Her nostrils flared, and with a nervous skittering of the feet, she hurtled down the narrow passage and took a spectacular leap. She almost cleared the crossbar into the shedder, but not before the scanner had grabbed her by the fleece and nonchalantly stuffed her back.

Each sheep was scanned in a matter of seconds – quite literally, about two or three. Once the number of lambs was identified, I had to mark the sheep prior to its release. This sounds straightforward; in practice, sheep are reluctant art partners.

What should have been a neat coloured spot squiggled and trailed – depending on the trajectory and mph of the sheep. Gentler cross breeds were fine. The Blackface left sporting childish Mr Scribbles, celebrity autographs or “crouching-tiger-hidden-dragon” [in the slightly mortifying words of the scanner].

Blackface sheep have a number of set approaches to the scanning process.

There are “The Jumpers”: these individuals steel themselves for maximum height and impact, bunching their little hooves underneath them, before launching up and in the general direction of the barrier. At times, two or three ewes would be piled like Junglebook elephants, as those behind gamely clambered over the forerunners.

There are “The Crawlers”: these individuals hesitate, then hunker down and try to shimmy past in stealth mode. Probably the least effective method as far as the sheep are concerned; somehow, we always managed to spot them…

Then, there are “The Runners”: these guys don’t mess about. They thunder down the race trailing farmers, fellow sheep and equipment behind them, making boldly for the exit… running like the wind… only to be shut into the shedder with a resounding clunk. A couple of brave souls almost made it, but Dan’s skills with the gate are every bit as good as his scanning.

Daydreaming , between shouts of “TWIN!” I contemplated the revolutionary effect Daniel could have on maternity units nationwide. This man could save the NHS millions at a stroke [though admittedly, patient satisfaction might take a hit]. His ability to decipher the vague black and white doodles on the ultrasound screen was uncanny – but then, having scanned over 4 million sheep in a 20-something year career, he does know what he’s doing.

What all sheep do seem to have in common is the delivery of a neat little “Screw You” skip, just as they make it back into the yard.

Presumably, the thought of surviving to graze another day makes them feel light on their feet – even when carrying triplets.

So, you might be wondering why we go to the trouble of scanning and marking our sheep at all. The answer is food.

The ewes are separated into our lambing parks based on the number of offspring they carry. For those with more than one youngster, additional feeding is required to keep them in good shape.

Sheep without lambs [so “yeld” sheep, to use the correct term] are given one year of good grace, after which their farming career is over should they fail to conceive again. These sheep were given an ominous red mark on the shoulder, and packed off back onto the hill.

The marks not only help with the separating process, but also help the farmers to sort out stray or missing lambs once they arrive. If a ewe has only one at foot, but bears a “TWIN!” mark, then they know to start looking. Speaking from experience last year, lambs just love to get lost.

Add to this the unbridled joy that some ewes get from stealing eachothers offspring, and you see that lambing is a thoroughly infuriating and time consuming business. Thus, further marking systems are required:

Once born, each pair of twins is given a number. This helps to ensure that everyone is where they need to be [and that the farmers’ blood pressure remains relatively stable].

Happily, the count of unborn lambs this year is the best on record for Glengorm. This was something of a surprise, considering the poor weather we’ve had all winter. According to the farmers’ vague explanations, bad weather can affect “the mood” somewhat.

For our flock of 800 ewes the final result was over 140% [ie. 1,120 unborn lambs between them].

Sadly, not all of these youngsters will survive… but it’s a very promising start!


Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

[and sheep-marker extraordinaire]

We’re watching ewe…

Watching Ewe