(Originally published on my old blog in 2011)
During one of the long, lazy summers of my youth, while the schools were on their extended break, I worked for a fortnight – along with my older brother – on my godmother’s farm. I think I would have been ten-years-old at the time, and, thinking about it now, I’m not sure that was entirely legal… or at all safe… but I was young and I needed the money… for sweets.
On hindsight, it was a mostly ghastly job. If I wasn’t scooping up cow poo from the cattle sheds, or choking on the dust from lugging around hay bales, I was putting rubber rings around baby baa-lambs’ scrotums or chopping off their tails with a very sharp knife… at the time reassured that it didn’t hurt them at all, though that seems like complete twaddle as I write this.
There was a lot of death on that farm, but not a lot of care. I remember finding drowned kittens in a water trough, watching crows vaporise from the blast of a shotgun. It didn’t do much for my appreciation of farmers. Ronnie, who ran the place, was the sort of guy who would shoot your dog and not bat an eyelid. Farming was in his blood, though… that’s the life he’d lived, all his life, and as the farm had been passed down through the generations, he knew no different.
One day, Ronnie had us all – my brother and I, and two of my godmother’s boys who we were the best of mates with – jump in the tractor trailer, and he drove us up to one of the fields, telling us there was a lame sheep that he had to take to the vet… which was quite a surprise, because I would have assumed that he’d have preferred to have shot it, while cackling menacingly.
When we found her, we could see she was in a state. She must have caught her leg in a barbed wire fence, as the flesh had been ripped quite badly… and while struggling, she’d used her forehead to try to break free, leaving a nasty wound.
Ronnie tied her legs – so she couldn’t leap away, not that she looked as though she was in the condition to do so – and we loaded her into the trailer. Obviously, she was in a lot of pain and agitated, but my brother and I sat beside her and stroked her, giving her as much reassurance as we could offer. Before long, as we drove the few miles to the vet, she had calmed down… her breathing had slowed and she seemed very relaxed when we reached our destination.
We took her down from the trailer and into the vet’s, and – since Ronnie was obviously a very busy man and had things to shoot – headed back to the farm.
A year later…
… I was fishing in a stream in one of the farm’s fields, in a beautiful, mossy glade, far away from roads. It was just the countryside, a few grazing sheep, the sound of birds and me… never any fish. I was a completely rubbish fisherman.
I was just sitting on the bank, whiling the day away, when I was nudged in the back, nearly knocking me into the water.
I turned around and saw a sheep standing there, just looking at me…
… and she had a bald patch on her forehead, where there was a large, healed scar.
She’d remembered me! Those brief moments of care and attention the year previous must never have left her, and when she recognised me, she came over to say hello.
Maybe my brother and I were the first (and perhaps only) human beings who had ever treated her with love, rather than as a cash-crop?
She sat down beside me for a while as I continued not catching fish, then went back to the flock when Ronnie appeared in his tractor on the far side of the field at feeding time.
I never saw her again… but I smile when she crosses my mind, though that’s tempered with a tinge of sadness, as I’ve never been vegetarian for more than a few months. She was no dumb animal. I saw her in pain, she responded to love, and she remembered me. It seems so callous that I’d still eat her kind, when I know how intelligent they are.
It’s time to make another life-change.
Update: 13th November, 2017 – Although I was veggie for a couple of years after this post, bastard bacon (mmm… bacon) lured me back to my carnivorous ways, but at the time of writing I’m vegetarian again and this is for life. And that includes no more bacon!
You may want to read this article, published on the BBC News site a week ago, showing that sheep can indeed recognise faces. But I’ve known this for a long time:
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