Sick sheep seldom survive; that’s what Gordon Blauvelt told me this week when I stopped in to retrieve 2 more bags of grain for the sheep. Miracle’s second round of antibiotics and all of the extra grain and alfalfa cubes I’d been feeding her had not improved her health or conditioning. Her breathing was fast and shallow, she continued to lose weight─and she had this sickly sweet smell about her. It had gotten to the point that I felt her quality of life was decreasing by the day, and I knew what needed to be done.
Before I could let Miracle go, however, I needed to line up a new sheep to keep Lily company; sheep are gregarious animals and always want at least one or two companions. Thus, I began the search for new sheep to bring to Runamuk.
Miracle and Lily are romneys that were given to me by the Blauvelts, and they are beautiful, wonderful animals, but the breed I really want to work with are known as “Finnsheep“. As a conservation farm, I like to focus on heritage breeds and old breeds that are in need of preservation. Finnsheep are a breed of native Landrace sheep of Northern European origin, with major flocks in Finland and Denmark. The breed is several hundred years old, adapted to Finland’s harsh climate and available rough forage. They are hardy creatures with strong maternal instincts that produce a very fine, lustrous wool, and superior meat.
Personally, I prefer breeds that are derived from climates similar to the conditions that I face here in Maine, and I always like to hear the word hardy used when describing an animal or plant. Even still, it was my friend Kamala who sealed the deal for me.
Kamala and her husband Ken, have a flock of Finnsheep that I’ve cared for on occasion for the family, and I’ve found the sheep always to be engaging, full of quirk and personality, enthusiastic─and very outspoken. I also like the way the animals look, and their variety of colors. Ask Kamala why Finnsheep are a good choice and she’ll gladly launch into a matter-of-fact run-down of all the reasons why Finnsheep are the best choice for the small, homestead farmer.
And so I decided that if I were going to invest any money in sheep, Finns were the breed for me.
Unfortunately, they’re not an especially common breed, and time was against me. Miracle was still eating and moving around fine, but her health was going downhill faster every day, and I felt she was really only hanging on for Lily’s sake. I needed another 1-2 sheep as soon as possible so that I could relieve Miracle of her burdens─preferably ***more than 1*** new addition, so that I would never again find myself in a position where someone was sick and needed to be put down, but had to wait for me to find a replacement companion.
Between calls in the Call Center at Johnny’s on Friday I scoured Craigslist, the Uncle Henry’s, and facebook sheep-groups for listings of Finnsheep; I came up with few options. At the urging of another co-worker (thank you Daria!) I checked out Olde Haven Farm of Chelsea, Maine, and beheld the pictures of their beautiful flock of Finnsheep and all the baby lambs.
I was smitten.
A registered purebred is not something I necessarily need for my purposes (mowing and meat), but I like the idea of having just one reliable, high-quality breeder for my little flock of sheep. On impulse I reached out to Pam and Kelby Young at Olde Haven Farm, and reserved myself one of their baby ewes for a June pick-up.
That was super exciting, but it still didn’t solve my urgent need for an immediate companion for Lily, so that Miracle’s fight could be ended.
Initially, I’d intended to avoid having a ram on the farm because it adds another level of fencing strategy that I didn’t necessarily need to deal with. Since I have friends with in-tact Finn males, I can easily avoid keeping a ram for my small flock’s reproduction needs; however, I had been eyeing this handsome 1 year-old Finn ram listed on Craigslist, and decided that it really wasn’t a far stretch at this point for me to step up my sheep operation to include a ram, and so I responded to the ad and set up pick-up for Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Saturday morning dawned, and as I worked through the usual farm-chores, I noticed that Miracle was spending an increasing amount of time lying down and was seeming to seek more and more comfort from me. I was really feeling like her quality of life was really going downhill faster with each passing day, and I did not feel good about making her wait any longer to end the suffering, and so I left work early to make the trip to Hartford to retrieve the ram.
Historically, expeditions for new livestock are always something of an ordeal, involving confusing directions, several wrong turns, and then the ride home with critters packed carefully inside the car with me. This sheep-mission certainly lived up to that tradition.
I don’t pay for an expensive cell-phone package, instead opting for a low-cost tracfone and sacrificing signal coverage to get by. Often, if I am not near a strong signal or wi-fi access, I will not have connection or phone capabilities. With that in mind, I printed the Google maps and directions to the address provided by the woman from the Craigslist ad, and set out from the office bound for Hartford.
I managed to keep the wrong-turns to a minimum, but the directions to the address turned out to be incomplete, and I’d neglected to get a contact number for the woman with the sheep, so it took longer than anticipated to find the location. Eventually though, I made it there and heaved a sigh of relief.
The trials of this quest were not over, however.
Go to any Maine farm during the spring thaw and you will find a similar scene: muck and manure, ice, mud, and snow in varying stages of decomposition. At the farm this ram came from, the gate to the enclosure he was kept in was frozen fast in the ice and effectively immovable. In order to retrieve him, the farmer’s 16 year-old son and I had to corral the animal, and heft him over the fence. The young ram, who was unaccustomed to wearing a halter and being tethered, was already stressed and distraught, and bolted at the first opportunity.
It took a few tries and a fair amount of slipping in the soft, squishy manure (for both humans and ovine) til we were all three covered and smeared in the sweet, pungent smelling stuff. I admit I almost left without him because I was concerned that he would be too wild to be contained at Runamuk, but the teenager wouldn’t give up and we eventually managed to get the sheep over the fence and up the path to my Subaru, where we loaded him into the back of the car and celebrated our accomplishment with a fist-bump.
The ride home went smoothly enough─aside from a pit-stop at a McDonald’s in Jay to use the facilities. I stood there waiting for my order, when a white-haired little old lady came up beside me to retrieve napkins and uttered something inappropriate as she walked away, I realized rather belatedly that I probably smelled rather offensive. Looking down at myself, I saw that I was covered in sheep-manure up to the knees, my sweater and vest were both smeared with manure, and my fingerless gloves were infused with manure too. I was a sight to behold, yet I couldn’t help but laugh as I walked out of the restaurant to see my car with the sheep poking his head out a window.
Miracle’s End-of-Life Procedure
It was about 6pm by the time I arrived home with my new treasure. Unloading and escorting the young ram to the sheep-shed was a much smoother process than it had been to load him, and the sheep had a brief introductory period before my friends Rick and Megan came with Rick’s shotgun to help me with Miracle’s end-of-life procedure.
Coyotes yipped and barked from the forest at the far end of the back-field and I was a bundle of nerves as Rick, Megan, Murphy and I went out to the sheep-shed in the dark. I was determined to do the Deed myself─Miracle and this farm are my responsibility, afterall. But at the last minute, standing there in the narrow pathway alongside the sheep-shed as Miracle feasted on a bucket of grain, I caved and decided to allow my friend make the shot. Rick obliged me without judgement, and it was done in the blink of an eye.
Miracle’s fight was over, but the job was not finished yet. I still had to move her carcass away from the sheep-shed.
To allow Lily time to recognize that her friend was gone, I left Miracle’s body where it lay as I thanked and bade farewell to my friends. Then I returned to finish the job, bringing with me a tarp and a stout rope; I found Lily standing over the dead sheep, mourning the loss of her friend as the coyotes sang their eerie songs under the starry night sky.
I held her and we grieved together for a moment, the sheep and I, then I set to work tying the rope onto 2 corners of the tarp and spreading it out on the pathway. Trying not to look at the devastation of a shot-gun round to the sheep’s head, I took Miracle’s body by the feet and hauled her onto the tarp before taking up the rope and proceeding to drag/slide her carcass out onto the snow that still covers the landscape at Runamuk.
I was feeling a bit fearful about the proximity of the coyotes as I paused to strap on my snowshoes, but leaving the sheep’s dead carcass where it fell was not an option, so I began dragging it out across the snow-covered backyard, deeper into the dark of night. Even though Miracle’s disease had ravaged her body, leaving her alarmingly thin for a sheep, she was still a good hundred pounds or more and heavy enough that I had to lean into the rope, putting my weight into it to haul her away.
One step at a time, I moved out across the snow in the direction of the tree line about a hundred yards behind the garage. Lily maaa’ed from the sheep-shed as I took her friend away and I knew she knew what was going on; my heart hurt for her. Pausing to catch my breath, I listened to the coyotes─were they closer? or was it just my overactive imagination?
I was halfway between the farm and the forest─halfway between the safety of the farm’s infrastructure and the dangers that loomed within the darkened forest. The coyote noises were definitely closer than before, I decided, and called for Murphy to accompany me.
To my chagrin, Murphy refused to follow me out into the black night to face the threat of coyotes in his master’s defense. He was as scared of the coyotes as I was! In a last-ditch effort, I yelled out into the darkness at the coyotes, “Go away! I’m out here and I don’t want to meet you! Baaaaaaah!”
The coyotes were undeterred. In fact, only seemed encouraged, as their yipping and barking increased, drawing ever closer.
From across the road, the neighbor’s small dog began barking, almost as though communicating with the coyotes, who barked back at him. I couldn’t help but imagine the little pomeranian was informing the coyotes of my location, “She’s over here!” and fear liquefied the blood in my veins, turning my limbs to jello. But I had a job to do.
Firming my resolve, I once again leaned into the rope and moved Miracle’s body farther away from the garage and closer to the treeline. I watched for the glint of eyes inside the forest as I approached the trees, hauling the sheep-carcass on the tarp behind me. I was shaking now, trembling harder with every snowshoe-step closer to the trees that I took. The snow was softer here than it was out in the open, and when my snowshoes began to sink more than a foot into the snow, I pictured coyotes leaping out of the forest, seizing the opportunity to attack.
None did, and at length, I came within range of the trees beyond the garden area. Quaking with fear─almost a hundred yards from the garage and the sheep-shed, and maybe 10-15 feet from the trees─I decided that was close enough, and I left her there for the night. Turning, I made my way back toward the farmhouse, looking back to make sure there were no coyotes sneaking up behind me as I fled.
Surprisingly, Miracle was untouched the next morning; the coyotes had not bothered the carcass. In the early light of day I hauled Miracle’s body farther down the field and into the forest where nature could take it’s course.
The Tough Call
It’s not an easy thing to do to end the life of an animal you care for─but it is sometimes necessary. You can give them every possible advantage: quality food, medicine, time and attention─and lots of love─and sometimes they’ll recover, but sometimes they won’t. When it reaches the point that medical treatments are proving to be ineffective and the animal’s quality of life is degrading with every passing day, it is love that must drive you to make the tough call to end the creature’s suffering.
Miracle was this friendly and affectionate, graham-cracker-loving, woolly love-a-bug that you couldn’t help but fall for. She taught me more about caring for sheep than I could have learned in any book or YouTube video, and she is the reason I now feel that sheep are an important part of the Runamuk Acres Conservation Farm. Miracle will always have special place in my heart; may we meet again on the other side.
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