So I’ve been off the radar again recently. I tell my family and friends about my days and by the time that is done, I’ve cooked dinner and I’ve finished re-watching the Vampire Diaries, I'm asleep. And the day starts all over again. On my last farm, I managed to avoid this (time of year and everything) but no, not this time.
But the things I’ve done are not to be forgotten. So I’m going to tell you about one of the most bizarre, traumatising and fascinating jobs I’ve had to do so far.
As I understand it, the male sheep (rams) are put in with the females for a period of time to basically, knock ‘em up. All of them hopefully. Rams are then taken away back to their own little paddock of testosterone and the females are left to create new lambs that will (hopefully) earn the famers some money.
They call it ‘lambing’ –the period of time where the females give birth. A few weeks after the big shag-fest a man comes around to the farm and conducts ultrasounds on the sheep to see whether they are carrying a single lamb, twins, or nothing at all. The sheep are then separated into their groups so it is easier to monitor their progress. And then, they drop. It takes a few days for the mother to bond to it’s young – they learn each others smell, separating them from the hundreds of others that are all looking for love, attention and milk. Lots of adorable baby lambs running around after their mothers, all very cute.
Until they have to be marked. Lamb marking, for me, consisted of 4 things:
So yes. In one day, I helped castrate 416 baby sheep.
The day before the sheep are mustered, using motorbikes, dogs and utes. They are driven into the yard using big arm movements, clever dogs and a lot of loud noises. The morning of the big day they are bought through the maze where the mothers are separated from the young for a few hours.
Ideally, they need to be old enough to recognise their mums when the process is finished. Some, unfortunately, are not. Twins were unlucky enough to be born right during the middle of the process, almost trampled by 600 sheep only to survive. They look so delicate but are amazingly resilient – within the hour they are running around, albeit clumsily. (They were reunited an hour or two later and all seemed perfectly happy the next day FYI).
So once the lambs are in the shed they are placed one by one into a device that reminded me somewhat of a gynaecology exam. Poor little buggers have their legs spread and gripped by a clamp, lie on their backs and bleat for mama.
The vaccination goes in just behind the ears, easy, virtually painless and my preferred job of the day. Next, comes the castration (if they have balls that is.) You do this first because they tense up if they sense pain is coming. There are many ways of doing this, some chop, some rubber band, a few bite them off.
That’s not a joke – many will actually use their teeth to remove the balls. A farmer came into the pub; beard covered in wool and dripping blood after a day of chewing sheep balls. A delicacy he said. BOGANS.
We rubber banded – you push the abdomen to get the balls out enough to isolate, then using a band you twist and grip them. Circulation is cut off and they eventually drop off.
The same goes for the tails, without the digging and twisting. So that’s the next job covered.
BY THE WAY? Who knew that sheep don’t have fluffy little ball tails? They actually have long, swinging hilarious tails. Bless.
They are removed for their health – flies become a massive problem if they are left. There is another process called ‘mulesing’, which some farmers still do, but is supposedly very painful. It involves cutting the skin around their ass so it grows back cleaner. I think. I never fully understood it and was grateful I never had to see it performed.
The last – and my least favourite, was ear tagging. (Of course this was exactly the one job I was given for most of the day).
A tool is used to pierce the ear, like a paper hole punch. It’s a large hole, making it a bloody, painful experience. You then pull the device straight out, and the plastic tag with the farm’s name, owners and identifier number is left in the hole. Hopefully. It’s not easy and I had more than a few sheep have to go through it multiple times. I was kicked in the chest and jaw. I had blood spurt everywhere, covering both me and the lambs.
But the worst happened only once. One lamb had a strange ear, it felt like there was no cartilage in it, and it was a struggle to punch the hole through. That, I’d felt before. But when pulling the tag, it ripped. I literally removed half a sheep’s ear. IT WAS HORRENDOUS, I will never forget that feeling. That was the moment I decided I couldn’t face another day of this. I was on the verge of tears, and every emotion I felt was nothing compared to the pain of the lamb screaming. The farmer took over and fixed the problem, but I just kept thinking ‘I don’t know what I'm doing here.’
I am not trained in any way to do this job. It is a requirement for my visa, but in what way is it right to let a very nervous girl from England who works in offices wearing high heels puncture holes in innocent animals ears and cause them this pain?!
I understand lamb marking is completely nessarcary, but there is nothing in this world that could make me do it again.
My dad keeps telling me I have to write these stories down. I have so many from that period of my travels. I will say now – my regional work was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was lonely, cold, testing and draining. Am I proud I completed it? Yes. Will I remember it for the rest of my life? Yes. How did I feel to get the paperwork signed and hop on that plane? Incredible. The most satisfying moment of my life in Australia so far.