Friday 8 April 2011

8th April 2011

Well I'm trotting up into Scotland every night to do my night lambing.

A shed with cheviot ewes housed in it all expectantly waiting to become mothers. Some have already achieved their goal, there are a few in the pens waiting until morning (weather permitting) to be loaded into a trailer and taken to the fields where there are a good number more already grazing away, the young lambs either lying back sleeping or following close to their mothers sides, older lambs charging around and playing, getting into lambie mischief as only lambs can, their mothers bleating to call them back to the safety of their sides.

The night shift of the 8th April commences differently to all others.

Usually on arrival at the farm the first thing I do is walk into the shed and check what is going on, what has gone on during the day and what might be going to go on shortly. In other words, is anything lambing at the moment, what has lambed since I was last here and is anything looking like she is imminent. I will meet up with the shepherd somewhere along the lines, he may be in the shed sorting something out or I'll meet him in the yard outside. I'll be brought up to date with any problems which may be lying in the pens and a 'hand over' of duties will commence. Often, if things seem quiet, a cup of tea back at 'my' cottage will be the order of the day and the pair of us will have a crack before he retires for the night and my 'working day' commences.

The 8th April is different. It is highly unlikely that I will see the shepherd. There may be a note left, or there may be a 'phone call received, he may well call in at the cottage fleetingly to pass on some important information but he most definitely will not be found in the shed.

Ten years on and yet still he cannot bring himself to come near that shed on the night of the 8th April. Fortunately the ewes all lamb outside during the day, out in the fresh air where nature goes about her business and life busies itself on, they do however come into the safety of the shed upon darkening and settle down in warmth and comfort.

So what's the problem?
What's the significance of the shed on the 8th April?
Ten years ago was the year of 2001. So? Well in 2001 there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in this country. The result was many, many cloven hoofed animals were slaughtered, many of which did not have the disease.

8th April 2001 saw this farm have all it's livestock compulsory slaughtered. Men in white boiler suits and face masks took over and wiped out 300 years of breeding lines of Cheviot sheep on this particular farm. The farm came under the classification of being contiguous (a word which many of us had never come across until 2001, a word many of us looked up in the dictionary). Basically the farm fell under a 3km radius of infected premises and so had to be killed out.

The hill sheep were gathered in off the hills where they roamed freely on the morning of the 8th, run into the sheep pens and slaughtered. They were 8 days off lambing. The field sheep were next on the list, run into the pens, some with lambs at foot, some with new born lambs, some which lambed down as they were slaughtered. Regardless all were killed.

It was a long, stressful day but it wasn't over. The shepherd had laid the law down, the carcases were to be removed the same day, everything was to be slaughtered and removed off the premises there and then. Many had found themselves being left with piles of carcases until the next day, wagons moving in twenty four hours later to remove the carnage, this was not going to happen on this farm.

Evening was drawing in and still the slaughtering went on, by this time the slaughter teams had moved into the shed, the shed which I lamb in. The cattle pens are integrated into this shed and it was the turn of these cattle to meet the humane killer. Cows and young calves were herded into the shed, men with white suits had them terrified, the bellowing of cattle calling for their calves in the melee, the fear of the noise of guns firing and the smell of the blood had the cattle stirred up into a state of panic.

The men(including the shepherd I lamb for) that had cared for these beast were on hand, caring for them to the end as they quite literally drove them to slaughter. Each one was loaded into the cattle crush, shot and dragged out of the shed whilst the next waited her turn. Tempers flared between those who cared for the animals and those sent in to shoot them, there was often a lack of understanding of stockmanship with those who were on the killing teams. The shepherd has recalled how he brought his stick down in a fit of temper, it narrowly missed the man in whites head but he did not care, he had to get his point over somehow, he wanted his animals in his care treated with respect, the respect they deserved.

It was close on midnight when the last wagon left the premises, when the floodlights were switched off, when the men in white departed. A long day, a painful day, a harrowing day, a devastating day.

All the shepherd was left with was silence, bloodstains and memories. Memories which linger to this day, memories which still prevent the shepherd from entering the lambing shed on the night of the 8th April.

I wasn't there, I didn't know the farm in 2001, I'd never met the stock, although I did know of the shepherd. I have spent many hours listening to him recall that awful day and the events afterwards. The confirmation that none of the stock had foot and mouth. The silence. The emptiness. The anger. The despair. The effort to find original bloodlines. The restocking. The countless days of herding to get the sheep hefted onto strange ground.

I could go on for ever, as in many ways it is never ending. I often wonder if anyone could possibly understand. They were just animals, they are bred for the meat chain anyhow, so why should it have caused so much grief?

I can't explain. I would rabbit on for ever and not feel that I can get the point over. I often think that unless you were actually involved, were faced with the devastation and destruction, as this man was and as I myself was, then you couldn't really understand. I do know that time is a healer, I also know that memories hold strong.

There are many, many people out there that have their dates and their memories all linked with 2001 but I don't know that many could understand.