Thursday, March 19, 2009

Recycling a sheep

Today was one of those unexpected days.

I had decided to use up one of my holidays getting a jump start on a job I need to do with students after the break: putting up a small wind turbine to replace on that is broken on the college's so-called "Eco-Cottage," a small solar- and wind-powered dorm we set up nearly five years ago.

Generally, switching out a wind turbine, or anything like that, is a good opportunity for a lesson. In this case, I set up bench tests for the old, broken turbine head, and for the new one. Students can do the tests, see for themselves how the electricity is produced, and then we can go assemble the new turbine to the tower. Getting ready for this was a nice puttering job for a claggy sort of a day.

But when I dropped in on the college's Sustainability Coordinator Aaron Witham to ask for a hand dropping the old tower, which takes three or four people to drop, he had news. One of the college ewes was looking very badly, and would I go look.

So I did, and realized that whatever she had, she needed to be put down right away. She wouldn't get up, was having breathing difficulties, and had crawled under the hay rack to, well, die, I guess. She was in a very bad way, and to call a vet would just prolong the agony. In our neighborhood it's actually sometimes quite hard to get a livestock vet to come by at all. No James Herriots anymore, I'm afraid. There's been so little money in mid-Maine farming for so long, the vets are all small animal vets, not livestock vets. This ewe is 13 years old, bad-tempered, and prone to hoof rot. Any serious sheepman would have culled her long ago. Obviously, the college flock is more for lessons than for meat or fleece production, but that just means we have even more of a responsibility of care. When a domestic animal is sick, you have to take care of it, one way or another. It's your business. The animal is dependent on you. You're the one in charge. You have to take responsibility. So we had to figure out what to do.

And so, at 13 years old, her time was up, I thought. Better to die quickly and painlessly than slowly withering away in pain and fright, hiding under the hay rack.

The putting down wasn't so much the problem. All the livestock people around here have rifles in our homes for this purpose, as well as for predators and feral dogs. I was not worried about whether or not I could give her a quick, humane death. Disposing of the carcass is the main difficulty. The general plan with a sick animal that can't enter the human food chain because of some unidentified disease (plus being old and tough) is to compost the carcass, which is encouraged by the state agricultural authorities. You simply bury the carcass in a well-aerated, well-mixed compost heap. Less popular with the authorities, but still permitted, is burial. It isn't encouraged because of potential effects on ground water, but a little common sense in picking the spot alleviates most of these worries.

Finally, you can always butcher the animal for dog food. I don't know if you've noticed, but the digestive system of the common dog is generally capable of coping with anything from horse manure, through completely rotten meat, to, well, stolen slippers and items of underwear. Not to be too light about it, but even an old sick animal can generally be fed to dogs.

That was what we settled on.

I didn't want the carcass around my farm because I have new lambs and it might attract predators, the college Facilities boss didn't want to compost or bury her on campus, nor could we put her down there either, discharging firearms being against campus rules.

So we drove around to one of the Amish farmers I know, and asked. "Did anyone in the (Amish) community have a lot of dogs and need any dog meat." Amish often breed dogs for sale, and we quickly found an Amish Springer Spaniel breeder with three dogs who would all be happy to help eat an old ewe.

And then we gently put her in the back of the pick-up truck, drove her to my farm, where we did the deed as quickly and humanely as it can be done. It's never easy to do, and it always takes longer than you think, but with an accurate shot through the spinal cord and the base of the skull, there can be no pain because there's no neural connection anymore.

(I don't know for sure if this is true, but it sounds right, is how I was taught to do it, and is what the books say to do.)

Then we butchered what was left. This was all a new experience for Aaron, but he was willing to learn. As you can see from the picture, he was more than a little surprised and bemused by the whole experience. Being Unity College Sustainability Coordinator, a job he's soon to give up to go to graduate school, has been an interesting set of experiences for him. Today was certainly no exception.

Finally, we delivered her to the Amishman. Aaron was pleased, and curious, to meet so many Amish in one day.

All pretty gruesome, and pretty hard on an old sick ewe. I felt sorry for her, but I think it was for the best in the end. She was barely sensible of what was happening to her, didn't even get up in the pick-up truck ride over, which is unknown. Any sheep taken from the herd and put in the back of strange vehicle will usually struggle.

There's more death to come. I found a cold, frozen newborn lamb out in our own paddock. It was frozen into a layer of snow that fell several weeks ago and was finally thawing in the general drippy thaw we've been having. I guess one of our ewes must have gone into labor early, while we were riding out one of the nor'easters I wrote about earlier, most likely the 24-incher that fell last of all.

I was surprised and upset by this, and looked to blame the bobcat whose carcass I found earlier not fifteen feet from where I later found the lamb. But I have to say, it was more than likely the blizzard. When a ewe drops a lamb into a snowbank on a cold wet night, the lamb can't dry off, and is liable to die. We've seen it before. The remedy is to get the animals into the barn, to separate the ewes in lambing pens as soon as you see the signs, and to monitor closely. This one must have been born in the night, before we started doing night checks. If it was born during that last blizzard, to the ewe I think it was born to, the one currently looking suspiciously svelte, then it was three to four weeks premature.

I guess it could also have been a triplet to Maggie's twins born two weeks ago. There was a small snowstorm soon after. But it was pretty well buried and actually frozen into some ice. I had to chip it out with a pick-axe. It hasn't been long enough.

We will have to figure it out, because we're supposed to have three pregnant ewes left, and this means we may only have two. Unless it is Maggie's triplet, in which case three still.

So that's a lot of death to deal with for one day. Sad.

But there's always death in the life of a farm. And life, encouragingly, goes on. We'll have even more new lambs running around soon enough, to be followed by new green growing things.

My friend who is just getting ready to defend her PhD dissertation, and worried about two teenagers (having ordinary teenager problems) was happy when I told her about the old WW II government signs now back in vogue in the UK, "Keep calm and carry on."

She found the slogan comforting.

Well. What else is there to do?


  1. Mick, am I correct that your "mercy shot" is done from the back of the head just above the place where skull meets the spine and directed roughly toward the point between the eyes?

    P.S. Sorry about your lamb.

  2. That's how I do it. But many of the books say to aim from the front right at a point between and just above the eyes.

    The shot from the rear, if accurate, seems to me to be a more direct route to the tissues that have to be destroyed if the animal is really meant not to feel anything. It also has the advantage that, with a large enough slug, the jugular will likely be torn open, saving the difficulty of finding it and cutting it with a knife.

    I expect the books advise the frontal shot because it's easy to see where to aim. On a particularly woolly sheep, the back shot may be tricky to get right.

    Gruesome topic. But important to get right!

  3. Very gruesome - extremely important to get right on the first try!

    I understand that purpose of the shot to the forehead (usually done with .22 rifle) is to stun, so the jugular (but not the spinal cord!) can be cut and the animal then dies from loss of blood before it regains the conciseness. That's why untouched spinal cord is important - the heart must keep working to pump the blood out quick. Or at least that's how it was explained to me. Some people just gut the jugular without any shooting at all - seem to work well (when experienced person does it, the sheep seems to be more puzzled than hurt and there is almost no struggling) but personally I prefer belt and suspenders here, since I'm anything but experienced :)

    Your way is much easier (also because the animal doesn't see the gun and there is less of a chance it jerks at the wrong time) and is nice to know for the cases where you're not going to eat it, so getting the blood out fast is less important.



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