The ewe must have died in childbirth. Pete found her on his morning round, lying in the field with a bloody newborn nuzzled up. His son Craig helped him load the ewe into the back of the Landrover, and they all rode back to the barn with Pete cradling the lamb on his lap and Craig driving. They cleaned off the lamb and put it in a pen, then laid the dead ewe on her back. Pete took up an empty bottle, then bent down to salvage as much colostrum as he could.
That’s when his hip dislocated.
He fell backwards onto a pile of straw, and lay there screaming whilst Craig called for an ambulance.
Once the morphine and Entonox have dulled the pain, we splint one leg against the other and then with Craig and some other farmhands, we slide Pete onto the vacuum mattress.
It’s a wonderful place to work. All around us in the muffled, straw-light and sun-warm peace of the shed, lambs suckle or chew intently with their snouts poking through the bars of their pens. Sparrows twitter and screech round the old oak beams, whilst out in the yard the chickens that were scared away by our arrival have returned to reclaim their territory, scratching around in the dirt. The lambs are all excited, trembling, watchful. Sometimes they spin around on the spot, or spring straight up and then bound away into the straw. They all have numbers sprayed in blue on their sides, the same colour as the vacuum mattress. Meanwhile, the corpse of the dead ewe lies off to the side just beyond the tail ramp of the ambulance, like an abandoned, upturned table, all four legs sticking straight in the air.
The ambulance bumps about on the road, but we’ve immobilised Peter pretty well and he seems content. We chat about this and that, farming, mostly, with Peter explaining about vaccination, vet’s bills, flooding, seeding problems and so on. He patiently hears me out each time I ask a question, holding the Entonox mouthpiece between his teeth and taking contemplative puffs, like he’s enjoying a pipe at The Bull.
‘Do you ever use any of the sheep’s milk for cheese?’ I ask him.
He takes another puff.
‘No’ he says. ‘There’s never any spare. It all goes down the lambs’ gullets, to fatten them up. You know – for chops.’
‘Lovely!’ I say. ‘I could do with a couple of chops.’ But for a moment and in spite of myself I feel a little dizzy. I think it’s the contrast between the beautiful lambs playing in the straw; the dead ewe lying on her back; the farmer harvesting milk to give the newborn a fighting chance; the warmth, the hour, the elaborate care of it all – and the fact that in a few short months, every one of those lambs will be killed, jointed, wrapped, labelled, table ready.
‘How’s the hip?’‘Bloody thing,’ he says. ‘You may as well shoot me.’