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Notes from the North News

Sheep 24 Feb 2024 A sideways glance at sheep north of the A40.

Several of the City Farm fields in recent years have been increasingly used for grazing sheep. I am not sure what this has meant for local biodiversity, although there still seems to be plenty of it around. Sheep grazing are a pleasantly pastoral sight . . . if you are not having to look after them yourself. A recent appreciative visitor from urban Cowley said to us, “Sheep – just like in The Bible.”

The grazier and his two beautifully trained sheepdogs work hard. They appear regularly to move sheep from field to field, sometimes having to retrieve a few rebels that have found gaps in the electric wire or even taken on the electric shock by crashing through it.

Yes, rebels. Perhaps because the word “sheep”, like “salmon” or “trout”, can be both singular or plural, one might be tempted to regard them as indistinguishable, lacking individual characteristics, and essentially a bit dull or dim. Watching them on dog walks suggests otherwise.

In one field, ewes only, some of them have discovered the allure of a short chimney affair in the ground that has been used to monitor any landfill gas that may have migrated from the adjoining field, which belongs to the O’Malley aggregate recycling operation. They have clustered around it, looking dreamy and possibly getting high on an escape of methane. The ovine equivalent of glue-sniffing.

I am reminded of a passage in Robert Macfarlane’s 'The Wild Places', in which he describes how some squirrels have learnt how to walk along telephone wires, and bite through them until they short-circuit the 50 volts into their bodies and heat themselves up. “In this way . . . each squirrel becomes a sort of low-voltage electric blanket – and will sit up on the wires with a stoned smile for hours.”

In another field, a group of male sheep are often to be seen paying some kind of homage to a big brown ram, whom we have unimaginatively called Big Brown, a well-endowed and benign authority figure. When approached by dog-walkers (with their dogs on the lead), the other males edge away, trying as far as possible to maintain their dignity, but Big Brown does not move. He watches you, eye to eye, keeping stock still, full of confidence. In fact, you are not sure that he won’t suddenly have a go at you. It reminds me of a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, 'Scoop', in which one of his characters says:

“There was something unEnglish and not quite right about ‘the country’, with its solitude and self-sufficiency, its bloody recreations, its darkness and silence and sudden, inexplicable noises; the kind of place where you never knew from one minute to the next that you might not be tossed by a bull or pitch-forked by a yokel or rolled over and broken up by a pack of hounds.”

Big Brown is a magnificent animal.