Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Big Step in a Certain Direction


Today was the day.

Dan and I are not quite such newbie shepherds anymore for we have participated in the slaughter and butchering of one of our own sheep.

Duane (Our barber and an expert hunter) was able to make it out today, and he and Dan slaughtered Gus, our ram (see "Rampage!", Eating Something with a Face (and Name)!" and "Halloween Reprieve"). For all the bravado of my past few posts about this, it was harder than I expected, a big step in a certain direction, for sure. I even dreamt about Gus the night before, running off with a timed explosive implanted in his forehead. And I had to keep reminding myself all day that we had good reasons for dispatching the old boy: 1) After 3 years as the flock’s only ram, he had a nasty, dangerous temperament. We couldn’t keep him in his pen or even his high-security stall and we couldn’t put him with the younger rams. He could have seriously hurt them, or us, or even worse, one of the children (our three, neighbors, friends and cousins) who are constantly at play in and around the barn. 2) His massive horns had grown so thick that they were rubbing up against the sides of his face. Eventually, this would lead to pain or death or expensive surgery or routine, impossible to imagine, “sawings”. 3) Because of reasons 1 and 2, he was no longer the best option as a herdsire. Gus had a nice broad build, an exceptional lineage and a beautiful fleece. His lambs grow tremendously and we hope his son, Charlie Bucket, will carry these positive traits into the next generation, without the other two issues. So far, it looks possible. We’ll have to wait and see on the horns, but Charlie B. has a very mild temperament (so far).

Anyway, reason competed with emotion for me today. I stayed in the house, baking with the kids (Yes, actually baking!) while the “menfolk” did the dirty deed. Even so, my mind kept wandering back to the barn. Was it over? Would I hear the shot? Would Gus feel any pain? Etc. etc. Mostly it was the actual moment that bothered me. Having been present at deaths before, I know there is a profound and terribly irrevocable moment when an animal (or person) goes from alive to something quite suddenly “not”. I wasn’t sure I could stomach that moment.

When next I saw Gus, he was not Gus at all, just this lifeless carcass hanging from a tree. All I could come up with to say was “Wow. It’s just so… real”

“Yup,” Duane said “It don’t get much realer than this.”

We learned a lot today—about skinning and salting, meat grinding and bone sawing. It was a long day of work. One I can’t say I enjoyed but one that was necessary and undertaken as humanely as possible. And one that provided half a year's worth of healthy food for my family.

Tonight, we have over 50 pounds of ground meat in our fridge, all of it spiced up with garlic and other yummy things, and a beautiful hide drying in the garage. Conventional wisdom holds that Gus, being three years old and in the beginning stages of “rut” would be virtually inedible. (We had heard “Never eat a ram in any month that has an R in it” and also many mutton and ram horror stories.) But today, I can say “Poppycock!” with assurance. We are quite happy with our spiced, ground meat and what could be better in a shepherd’s pie than a sheep?

I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing—not great or triumphant or anything remotely like that-- but strangely, slightly satisfied. I know this very “real” process a bit more intimately now, and it doesn’t frighten me quite as much as it had.

5 comments:

Christy said...

Thank you for writing about this. We're going to be moving to a farm in the next year and plan to raise sheep. I'm still trying to figure out what I want to do with them because I'm not sure how I feel about killing and eating them. I need to do more research into sheep markets. I haven't read your archives so I could probably find the answer there, but what do you do with your sheep? Do you sell the babies? wool? meat?

P said...

Hi Christy,

We've only had two lambing seasons so far, and Gus was our first adventure into eating our animals.

Mostly, we've sold or traded our lambs as breeding animals

We also shear twice a year and sell our wool at local fairs and on the internet.

We're hoping to offer and sell more next year.

We'll also (probably) eat more of our lambs (the "culls" or lambs less suitable for breeding)

When we first got our little flock of four, I couldn't imagine ever, ever, eating them. But now that we have 12, it seems much more... okay. Maybe it's all the money we spend on their hay. (We feed them; they feed us?)

I've heard from other Icelandic shepherds that meat is the best "product" as far as selling goes. But we haven't gone down THAT road yet.

Congratulations on making the move. We have never looked back. Can't imagine any other life now.

Where are you planning to farmstead?

P said...

Hi Christy,

We've only had two lambing seasons so far, and Gus was our first adventure into eating our animals.

Mostly, we've sold or traded our lambs as breeding animals

We also shear twice a year and sell our wool at local fairs and on the internet.

We're hoping to offer and sell more next year.

We'll also (probably) eat more of our lambs (the "culls" or lambs less suitable for breeding)

When we first got our little flock of four, I couldn't imagine ever, ever, eating them. But now that we have 12, it seems much more... okay. Maybe it's all the money we spend on their hay. (We feed them; they feed us?)

I've heard from other Icelandic shepherds that meat is the best "product" as far as selling goes. But we haven't gone down THAT road yet.

Congratulations on making the move. We have never looked back. Can't imagine any other life now.

Where are you planning to farmstead?

Christy said...

We will most likely be in Georgia, near Atlanta, but not too near LOL. I figured we'd start with 2 or 3 sheep and see how it goes. You've found there is a market for wool and babies? We will probably end up eating some of them over time but I don't really want to raise meat animals. We won't be moving until spring at the earliest, so I'm going to spend the winter learning to knit and felt so that when we get the sheep I'll know what to do with the wool. I can't wait!

P said...

Felting is so much fun, a very forgiving craft! Just the kind for me :)

We've had no trouble selling the lambs as breeding/fleece animals. And the wool has been pretty easy to sell, too.

You might want to start off with sheep from a shepherd who selects for parasite resistance, and take the FAMACHA class if you get a chance. (We found it really helpful.)

Good luck with the move. There are some terrific Icelandic Sheep Breeders down your way.