I should be used to it by now. It happens every August when the pasture dries up and the lambs start working holes in the fence. I arrive home and find two of them grazing the “long pasture,” which is a term the neighbours use to describe any roadside ditch contiguous to a farm. Two lambs turn into thirty if corrective steps aren’t taken, so I move the whole flock to the barnyard and start feeding hay, while I shore up holes and string more electric fence. The old ewes hate being cooped up and they hammer away at the barnyard fence until they find a weak spot. At three in the morning, my wife hears a noise and goes downstairs to find the whole flock on the front lawn. Much cursing and wheezing and limping follows until the sheep are captured and imprisoned inside the barn.
This week’s escape was completely routine but it raised a new question. There are only a few things I pay much attention to in the garden: I like my strawberries, my asparagus, my pepper plants and the grapevines. And my wife is very fond of her morning glory globe. Do the sheep know this? Is that why they go straight to the garden, girdle the morning glories, trample the asparagus, mow the strawberries off like a bush-hog, pull the pepper plants up to look at the roots and then drop them and then run over to the vineyard and strip every single leaf off the grapes? Then they go into the nearest outbuilding and you can just hear them say, “What’s toxic in here, Marj?”
I posed this question at the Supper Club last night and our next door neighbour Bert Jardine sat straight up. “That’s what I want to know!” he cried. “My cows got out the other night and it was the exact same thing. Now, generally speaking, I don’t pay much attention to the apple varieties I grow. Apples are apples. However, I do have 5 Melba trees that I have become partial to and they are right smack dab in the middle of the orchard. Did somebody explain that to the cows? Is that why they ran straight over to those five trees, ate all the apples off them and then trampled them into the ground?”
My wife smiled. “I don’t really mind a break-out in the middle of the night,” she said. “I think it’s because it reminds me of when I was a little girl. I can just picture it now. A full moon and a still night, the cows munching and belching their way through a field of ripe oats and barley. And the whole family is out there together in the ghostly half-light, whooping and whistling. The oats are heavy with dew and our pyjama bottoms are sagging around our knees. My dad’s is in his red flannel underwear, waving his cattle cane and cursing the cows in long, unbroken sentences…” She broke off, lost in the sweet dream of a cherished memory.
That was back in the day when everybody said “There but for the grace of God…” and jumped out of their cars to help round up the fugitives. Today, you wouldn’t expect a passing driver to take their foot off the gas, let alone maybe dust the brakes a little. When you buy a homestead with the idea of keeping livestock, you really should do what the nuclear people do when they locate a plant. Think about containment in the event of a spill. That’s why we live down a blind line, a mile from the highway.
“I think the neighbourhood was stronger when we all kept livestock,” said Bert. “They kept us in touch. I remember one of my sows got away one time and she was gone for maybe three weeks. People would phone me when they spotted her and I got to visit folks I hadn’t seen for years.”
“Did you get her back?” I asked.
“Good heavens!” said my wife. “How on earth did you get them home?”
“I went to Tim Horton’s and bought three miles worth of doughnuts. That sow just loved doughnuts and she followed me home like a dog with the piglets trotting along behind her.”
– From the September 2013 issue of Small Farm Canada Magazine