The joy of bucket training.

It never fails to amaze me the effect that simple changes can have in leading to results much greater than one would ever have anticipated. I recall when we started with sheep and were the proud owners of a very small flock. We bought five ewes and a ram (who, after much thoughtful deliberation by my wife, was named ‘rammy’) and would wake and look out of the window with pride as we watched them roam our fields happily grazing.

This idyll was soon broken when we discovered that we had a part to play in this rural bargain – they provide the meat and wool, we provide the medical care and feeding. The problem was that to provide the care and attention meant rounding them up and gathering them into a pen so that we could give vaccinations or medication to them. We know this might be a bit difficult so we deferred the task until we could organise some reinforcements and we invited friends to come an help us.

On the first attempt we went out en masse. There were four of us, all reasonably fit, and with 9 university degrees between us, we were going to outwit these animals in short order.  It took us four hours of running, jumping and swearing till we got the first half corralled and a further three to get the others. The sheep outran us at every turn, they dodged our cunning barricades, out-thought our sneaky plans and obviously knew what we intended and were not going to play ball. The only true success we had that first afternoon was to be a valuable source of entertainment for our neighbours who stopped their work to enjoy the spectacle of the ovine victory.

That evening, as we sat dejected and tired,we seriously reconsidered our plans : perhaps we could become vegetarian, we were sure we could outrun a potato and outwit a carrot (Well fairly sure). If we had to have this struggle every time we needed to do anything with the sheep we really did not think we were up to it.

Object of Desire

Summer and Autumn came and went and we had dreadfully ineffective days when we dosed each sheep one at a time or sheared them over a few weeks. Things did not get better. Then winter arrived and we started to feed them to help them through the lean months. They soon learnt that we were a source of hay and even more importantly a source of ‘sheep nuts’. Once they saw the bucket they knew what it contained and they changed entirely.




As I filled the bucket from a large metal food bin the lid of the bin would rattle. The sheep, about 1/4 of a mile away would hear this jangling and would bleat to let me know that they knew food was on the way. By the time I had walked to the gate they would be already assembled and waiting for their breakfast. They were now “bucket trained” – and like all good bucket trained sheep they would go wherever the bucket went (mainly). The joy of being able to move the sheep from field to field simply by walking with the bucket, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin with a line of obedient and eager sheep in tow, was exhilarating. Movement was now a joy rather than a cursed task but there was still a niggling problem. We could now get them to follow us around but we still could not get them to go into a corral. They were still too wise for that, and they guessed that we were up to no good when they saw a corral erected from hurdles in the field. We needed more help.

We needed somebody smarter,


someone quicker, and someone with more stamina. All our education felt us totally unprepared for sheep wrangling, we needed an expert. Fortunately we found her in a neighbouring farm. Cadi, the sheepdog, was bought for the princely sum of £75 and put to training. She knew instinctively what to do and after a few lessons with a local shepherd he, and Cadi, had us licked into shape. Cadi could outrun and outwit even the fleetest and sharpest ewe. Between the bucket and Cadi we can now gather everyone together and have them corralled in about quarter of an hour and life is again sweet.


I was thinking about this today because we needed to give the sheep ‘pour-on’ and ‘drench’ to protect them from flies and flukes. The warm wet weather we have had recently makes this a major risk. Until a few years ago this was a nightmarish task, I would have difficulty sleeping for nights before as I tried to think out stratagems to outwit the sheep. This time we got up, got the bucket and the dog and did the work. It was a sunny morning and I am glad to say that some neighbours passed by and watched us manage the dosing without a single expletive. Some even commented that they had not got round to doing their sheep yet. We will never become famous shepherds but we are happy to be looked on as competent

As time goes on we continue to learn and get better at some things.  Sometimes it is the small things in life, like a bucket and a dog, which make the biggest difference. The important thing is to persevere. You may not believe it at the time but, even in later life, it is possible to master new skills and learn new knowledge. The danger is to abandon the challenge and to miss the opportunity of learning just what you are capable of doing. I could easily have done that four years ago and be speaking as a animal-less, vegetarian. It is hard now to imagine life without the sheep, and especially without Cadi.


We heard the bucket so we thought we had better be ready at the gate.




Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Is Unnecessary Suffering the price of our tolerance?

Religious freedom; that is, the ability to think freely on religious matters, the right to worship an the manner your religion decides, the freedom of associate with others of your faith, and the freedom to express your faith, through words or actions, is one of the hallmarks of a modern, liberal, civilised society. One of the signs that this has been reached is the tolerance that citizens show towards fellow citizens who do not share the same beliefs as them. Thus in a tolerant society people may disagree, even vehemently so, and believe others wrong in their thoughts and deeds but we tolerate these differences and live alongside each other despite them. We do not insist we all think and believe the same way and do not demand that people act, or don’t act , in the same way. We don’t insist that we all abstain from meat on a Friday, nor that we all observe the Sabbath on Saturday, nor do we insist we all face Mecca while we pray.

However, there are some limits to this tolerance. This tolerance does not allow us to commit acts which are harmful to others and we insist that everyone is equal in front of the law. Or rather, with the rare cases of religious exceptions, we insist everyone is equal in front of the law. We tend to think that these exceptions should be rare, and should be based on a clear picture that they are necessary for religious observance, and do not break the natural rights of others. For example, I am sure that no matter how liberal a state became, and no matter how protective it was of religious freedom, that any modern state could countenance an exception to permit ‘child sacrifice’.

That above example was an extreme and therefore easy choice, but what of the difficult choices ? What about when a religions try to preserve archaic practices which we no longer hold to be reasonable ? What about when a religion demands of its adherents that they mutilate the genitals of their young ? This one is difficult . In the UK we allow a religious exemption to mutilate young boys’ genitals , while we circumcise them, but ban and prosecute anyone who tries to mutilate a young girl’s genitals. We cope with a difficult problem by having obvious dual standards. This is how important religious freedom is; it is more acceptable to be incoherent and duplicitous than to infringe any more than is absolutely necessary on the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

When these practices do not involve the suffereing and rights of people, but rather relate to animals, we become even less logical. It is generally accepted that if we are to kill, to eat, large animals such as hens, sheep or cattle, then they should be stunned into insensibility before the final act of killing the animal is performed. There is a clear body of evidence that animals which are not stunned and who bleed to death suffer pain and distress during this process. (For a summary by the RSPCA and British Veterinary Society see here). Therefore it is against the law to kill an animal by bleeding unless it has been stunned beforehand. Except if there is a religious excemption such as exists for the halal or kosher slaughter of animals. In most cases, even those animals who are slaughtered under kosher or halal regulations are still stunned before slaughter but it is estimated that up to 1 in 5 animals killed under these relgulations are killed without being stunned.

I am of a liberal disposition. I do not agree with this method of killing and think those that do this are doing a great diservice to the animal and to their faith. I argue with them and hope that, given time, they will see the error of their ways and behave better – either by stunning their animals or by deciding not to eat them at all. If you can only eat the animal if it has suffered it would seem inhumane to eat it, especially as there is no necessity to eat meat at all. I will, and have, argued strongly on this topic but because I am a tolerant individual I must tolerate their right to do this. It is one of the costs of maintaining our society, I would not seek to ban them but would urge them to reconsider their practice.

Unfortunately, I fear that an aspect of this problem is not being dealt with fairly and that a lack of openness and honesty is causing unnecesary suffering for animals. Many animals in abbatoires are killed in accordance with halal practice and the numbers killed thus exceeds the number needed for sale clearly labelled as killed under these religious excemptions. It is felt wiser in the slaughterhouse to do more animals this way than needed as they can be sold as normal while an animal killed humanely can not be sold as halal or kosher.

There is obviously no harm which will befall someone should they eat halal slaughtered meat unknowingly, though an observant religious person finding they had unwittingly eaten meat not slaughtered in such a fashion may worry for their souls (Though I believe the religions themselves give dispensation for such accidents). So many animals are killed without stunning but no mention is made of this on the labelling except when it is sold explicitly as halal meat. It has been suggested that almost every kebab sold in Wales is mad from meat slaughtered to halal standard (some stunned, some not) but no mention of this will be made at the point of sale. This is the very definition of unnecessary suffering , if I eat meat killed without stunning when I have no religious need to do so, then that the suffering of that animal was unnecessary and should have been avoided.

We already place labels on our food, various pleasant red tractors, or green trees, to ressure us that our animals had a good life and were well cared for. But we seem reluctant to place a label which lets us know that the animal didn’t suffer at death. I can understand the retailers’ reluctance; they clearly know that if there was a label saying halal slaughter some buyers would avoid that product because they do not want to be party to unnecessary animal suffering. They would prefer that we remain ignorant and continue to make the purchase unhindered by any moral deliberation.  Unfortunately they thus remove a choice we may wish to make to support better animal husbandry.

I fear our legislators also wish to avoid this issue but for a darker and more sinister reason. I believe that  they fear, that should they insist on labels saying ‘humane slaughter’, or something similar, then people may ask for a debate on how far religious exceptions in law can go in our society. They fear that they may unleash public anger. They tend to believe that for every person troubled by issues of religious tolerance and animal welfare there is a bigoted, racist, islamophobic or anti-Semitic  doppelgänger who will be released, and therefore it is best just to keep quiet about all of this.

Unfortunately keeping quiet and hiding secrets never encourages anyone to change. Those to whom you lied never find themselves pleasantly surprised when they find out the secrets you kept from them. It is more likely that when people find the truth they tend to become angry and hostile. Thus, if anything, this strategy of hidding the religious exemptions from humane slaughter is, in the long term, likely to increase animosity between groups and reduce the drivers for change and increased societal harmony. A simple label “killed humanely” would reassure those of us who eat meat, it might make some of us who eat meat think about whether we should continue to do so, and would hardly be offputting to someone who felt that their alternative methods were appropriate (Though it may make them think).

Surely it is just as important to know the animal was cared for when it was killed as to know that it was treated fairly while alive ? It might even be the very least we could do.



Shaving carrots

Shaving carrots

I really was at a loss as how best approach the Daily Prompt today. My musical tastes tend to brand me a crank and there were few songs that I felt I could share without seriously damaging my reputation. I had spent much of the morning mulling over this problem when the solution came to me through the airwaves. I was sitting shaving carrots when the 10cc hit from 1976, “The things we do for love came on the air. This was the first hit that 10cc had made since Godley and Crème had left the band and it transported me back to my days as a student and the misery that was my romantic life at that time. But perhaps I should stick to the point and explain why I was shaving carrots !

Spring is our busiest season, the world starts to come alive after the winter hibernation and the new lives start to appear on the smallholding. We have had a very successful year with our ewes and lambs and our goats are also proving to be fecund as well. It is during this season that I often find myself thinking about vegetarians. I can understand many of the moral arguments for vegetarianism and also think that in terms of  efficiency, and from a green perspective, there are probably good reasons to support their decision (Although, in temperate climates, there may be a case for sustainable meat). But in their focus on the end of the animals life I fear that they fail to understand those of us who work with animals and develop warm and strong affectionate bonds with them.

During spring I will work harder than at any other time. Like any anxious parent I will be up many times a night, leaving my warm bed, to walk in the small hours (and usually the rain) to the barn to feed a weak lamb or to tend to a distressed ewe. The feed requirement of the animals is obviously much higher at this time of year, but the natural pasture for grazing has not yet arrived, so there are regular foraging and feeding expeditions. Conscious of the dangers of birth and the problems that can accompany delivery we need to check the animals round the clock, regardless of what other calls may be made on our time.

But this is also the best time. To see the new lambs at their mothers’ feet, or to watch them gambolling in the field, is a pleasure that little can surpass. The sense of achievement, and relief, when assisting successfully with a difficult birth is hard to explain but is one of the great pleasures one can experience.  Although dumb, animals do show their appreciation, and over the years they have clearly learnt to trust us. On occasion, when we lose a lamb, there is obviously the sadness which accompanies this but overall the emotional bonds that form between man and animal are felt best at this time of year and it is the reason to continue with this endeavour. To focus on the last minutes and to ignore all of the animals life misses the main point of animal husbandry.

It was an aspect of goat husbandry which chimed with me when I heard 10cc’s song. Our nanny goat gave birth to twins who were delivered awkwardly. The twins are doing fine and growing well. They did have a period when they would only nurse from one of their mother’s teats which left her lopsided and uncomfortable. This necessitated a 3 a.m. milking for a short period to balance her up, and avoid the risk of mastitis, until the kids improved their table manners. The nanny lost a lot of weight after the pregnancy and in addition to advice from the vet we are trying to build her up. We have bough her fancy ryegrass haylage, at which she has haughtily nibbled, but her favourite foods are banana skins and carrots. Unfortunately she does not like carrots whole or chopped, I think that there is too much chewing involved, she likes carrot peelings. That is the way she first encountered them when she was given the vegetable peelings from the kitchen. So now we buy 20kg sacks of carrots and peel them in 5kg batches. It is why I sit at the coffee break shaving carrots for my nanny goat. My wife complains that she does not get this degree of attention lavished upon her – but the goat needs building up – the things we do for love !