Maybe three weeks ago, one of the newly purchased lambs died. She looked wobbly when Will was doing morning chores, and by the time we got home in the evening she was laying down by the shed. While normally this sheep would run off when I came within ten feet, she let me walk up to her and pet her – not a good sign. All the while, Bertha looked on suspiciously. Once I left her be, all the other sheep gathered around her and they stayed with her through the night. The following morning, she was dead.
We called our vet friend and the guess is that she ate glass or metal or something she shouldn’t. We didn’t bother with a vet visit as the animal was a few weeks from slaughter – giving any drugs means she wouldn’t be organic and we wouldn’t want to keep a sick sheep for breeding. As harsh as it sounds, we had a gut feeling that calling the vet would have been $75 spent on confirming what we already knew.
The new mantra for the sheep became Just Don’t Die. Fortunately, no one else did, although Lucky managed to get his head stuck in the netting/fencing twice such that we had to cut large holes in the probably now not functioning wires.
Last Tuesday, Will trapped the sheep in the shed on the first try. It’s amazing how a whole summer without grain has those girls jonesing for corn and barley. Ok, so he caught everyone but Grace, but she quickly headed right up to the shed to join her flock, having lost the urge for independence.
Will transfered Grace, Lucky and three of the smallest remaining newbie lambs to the horse trailer and released Bertha, Flower, Gloria and The Other One. Originally, we thought we’d take in The Other One given the issues she had giving birth, but ultimately we decided that a 2 year ewe who was proven fertile but maybe a bit damaged was less risky than an unproven 1 year ewe. Also, she got out of the shed with her sisters, and it wasn’t worth the chase.
Will drove them the hour and a half to Harrisonburg and let the butchers know we wanted to keep the pelts. Given the drive time, they suggested he stick around as it would only take an hour or so. He got to watch them process a couple of cows and all five of our sheep.
T&E is an awesome operation. (Yes, of Joel Salatin fame – go ahead, be jealous that it is our local butcher.) Everyone was incredibly approachable and happy to share their stories of how they became butchers and their role in the operation. Will spoke to the man who does the actual killing and asked if it ever gets easy, and he said no, it never does. From killing to skinning took about five minutes. The skinner commented that it was clear that our sheep were well cared for and well hydrated, based on the quality and thickness of their skin (now there’s a compliment I’d rather not receive in a bar). Then it was onto the butchers who took about five to seven minutes to break down an entire animal. Amazing.
The FDA inspector was on hand, inspecting organs for sheep and organs and skulls for cows. She was young, close to my age, and she was definitely a member of the team. We always assumed the government agent would be a distant, authoritative figure but she was absolutely a part of the process, and in a good way. She inspected our sheep and noticed very small abscesses on the livers, which she said was typical of organic lambs who don’t have antibiotics or de-worming treatments, as fighting off infection causes stress on the liver. They were only the size of flecks of sand, so the animals were very healthy, but nonetheless we could not keep the livers. She said it was very rare that an organic shepherd ever keeps the livers.
When I got home that evening, Will told me to head down to the basement. This is what greeted me…
It smelled funky, but not rank, if that distinction means anything. Will would need to salt the skins and let them sit for a week before FedExing them to a tanner in Pennsylvania. I’m not sure what was more shocking, that we couldn’t find a tannery in Virginia or that it was possible to FedEx dead animal hide.
Salted (and the legs removed), things look a bit more like this…
Once tanned, these pelts will become rugs next to all the beds. I know it sounds insensitive to talk about how luxurious it will be to step out of bed in the cold of January onto soft lamb wool, but I don’t think it would be any more respectful to my sheep to throw away so much of them. I know this is hippie of me, but if I am going to raise an animal to slaughter, I am going to use as much of it as possible. This is not about a handful of lamb chops.
More than any animal we’ve raised, we were attached to Lucky. We assisted with his birth, practically brought him back to life, and Will bottle fed him his first meal. He would pal around with Bertha trying to nibble up any grain dropped while feeding the pigs, or sneak into the shed to steal alfalfa pellets from the rabbits. And not to be too graphic, but we can even tell which pelt is his, as he had such a distinctive tail. So yes, this does not come easy. But it’s not supposed to. After all, we are dealing with life and death.