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The Unintentional Shepherdess. A lockdown journey into new beginnings.

My name is Anna, and I’m 40 years old. I am also an unintentional shepherdess.

I live with my family of three smalls and the husband on a three-acre smallholding on the outskirts of Truro.

I’ve always been a city girl, so my transformation into a smallholder (of sorts) has been somewhat surprising to all who know me.

It all started with a disused chicken run we uncovered when we moved in nine years ago. A friend of the husband kindly donated us a chicken coop, and we rescued our first batch of ex-battery hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust.

And so began our love affair with animals and with our land. We don’t pretend to know what we’re doing all of the time, but we always do it with gusto and with love.

My latest adventure, as an unintentional shepherdess, began about a year ago. We had been testing out sheep, borrowed from a near neighbour, as a possible means of keeping our field from going feral.

Our neighbour had also become a shepherdess by chance, bringing home an orphaned lamb from the farm where she worked, determined not to let the dear thing perish. Five years and two hundred sheep later, she was officially in deep.

She had several sheep who were her firm favourites; wethers she couldn’t bear to part with, older girls who were no longer able to lamb, or those she had hand-reared and would never make the table. These were the sheep we borrowed. I loved having sheep on the field, hearing them cough in the night (they sound, to the unaccustomed, exactly like an old man) and shouting for breakfast in the morning.

I have been told that sheep do two things; try to die and try to escape. But getting to know these animals gave me a greater insight into their characters; some were sweet, others bossy, some were extremely noisy and most quite keen to get on your good side for the occasional digestive biscuit.

In the Spring of 2020, we were given a chance to make a borrowed flock a little more permanent. The price of lamb fell overnight by almost half with the outbreak of Covid-19. Sadly, our neighbour had to sell her flock as it was no longer sustainable for her.

We were happy to offer some of her ladies a home and opted to buy four Wiltshire Horn ewes; Melody, Florence (and the Machine), Siouxsie (without the Banshees), and Eleanor Rigby. They are, if you hadn’t gathered, musical sheep. They are also friendly, patient ladies who would tolerate us learning the ropes alongside them.

Wiltshire Horns are an excellent breed for novice smallholders, as they are known for their easy-going natures and good mothering skills. They are less prone to escaping than some breeds, and they shed their fleeces naturally in the Spring, eliminating the need for shearing or dipping.

I have to admit to being a touch overwhelmed when they first arrived. My sister-in-law visited us a few days later and rather incredulously asked, “So these are your sheep? As in, forever?”

“Yes, that’s right,” I replied (trying to sound brave).

“Oh. But do you know what to do with them?”

“Not really,” I admitted, “but I’ll find out.”

We were lucky to have been put in touch with a rather excellent vet at Coast 2 Coast, who has set up a Small Flock Club we joined in lockdown. Our vet has been a bit of a godsend, helping me navigate health requirements and how to handle the girls safely.

Our ladies have horns, making it both easier and more essential to handle them with confidence. Siouxsie is a particularly rambunctious ewe and will often try to push past you through a gate. I have had enough bruises now to ensure that I am the dominant lady on the patch.

In September, during the brief easing of lockdown, we decided to expand our flock. We bought a ram for tupping, who was quickly christened Meatloaf and, even more rapidly, showed us what tupping is all about.

The latest lockdown was cold, long and hard. We, like many others, struggled to find a way through home-schooling, work demands, missing loved ones and the endless limits and stresses that Covid has brought to us all. But, at the end of this tunnel, there has been a joy. Last week, two of our ladies (Siouxsie and Melody) produced three beautiful lambs, Shirley Bassey and twins Elton and Mariah.

Lambing has not been without its stress and its heartache. We have had endless sleepless nights checking our “lamb-cam” to see how the ewes were progressing, or the lambs were faring. We also lost two of Melody’s triplets, having hand-reared one for an agonising five days.

It is safe to say that I am not cut out to be a farmer and take my hat off to anyone who does this regularly. I am far too sentimental and prone to becoming an emotional wreck.

As for making any money from lambing, this too is off the table. I am resolute that we will never part with any of this Spring’s babies, especially not for (shudder) eating. Nor am I in a rush to do this again any time soon., my heart couldn’t bear it.

But, here at our nest, we are undoubtedly full of the joys of Spring. The experience has been enriching and humbling for us all, big and small. My high point of it all has been witnessing our surviving triplet, Shirley, running and gambolling around the field after recovering from pneumonia. Her happiness was infectious and indeed a rather delightful antidote to a year of lockdown.

Anna Ireland is The Writer in the Nest

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