You should wear old clothes you don’t mind getting blood on.
This is very good advice.
The first thing you notice when you pick up a Merino lamb is its oily wool. It’s not dry or smooth or clean. It leaves your hands slightly tacky, slightly moisturized and after handling a few hundred there is a coffee-colored grease spot on your shirt.
That was the first job Barret and I were given. For several hours we stood knee deep in lambs and just picked them up. The trick was to grasp them under their two front legs with one arm while using the other arm to grab the bottom legs. If it worked out, the lamb pressed against our chests in a U-shape; a rear leg in each hand. Then we placed the lamb in a reclined booster seat where a thin metal bar pinned the rear legs up by its ears; probably the most uncomfortable gynecological position possible.
As fast as a Nascar pit stop, there was a rush to inject B12 and Lambvax into its neck. Then, like with the cattle, we used a heart-shaped punch to clip its ears. The marks were a quick gender reference: top of the right ear for the boys and top of the left for the girls.
When I made a clean ear punch it felt like a satisfying round of cookie cutting; my perfectly-formed furry hearts fell to the ground. However if my grasp was weak or I didn’t use enough power, the lamb thrashed from side to side and its ears began to bleed before I was finished. Usually the blood seeped, but sometimes it squirted; like a fountain of thin embroidery threads and it was very difficult to dodge.
At the same time as the shots and the ear punches, the person on the other end of the lamb administered blue scabies shots and constrictive rubber bands. The bands, as small as Cheerios, were placed on the tail right where the wool meets a soft pink triangle of skin. Even though it was an inch away from the rectum, the skin texture reminded me of the inside of a bird’s beak. The same bands were also placed around testicles, those lucky boys.
With the blood flow gone, the tail was ready to be cut off. This was the step I anticipated the least, but I decided to try it as well. With my left hand I firmly held the tail while I clenched the knife in my right. I slowly pressed the knife into the oily wool until the blade grazed the skin. I quickly glanced at the lamb and it surprisingly looked calmer than I, so I carried through with my momentum. Aside from the wool’s fluffiness, the tail bone was slender and had the same consistency as a carrot. Once the tail was removed it felt completely extraneous, like I had cut off unwanted split ends.
The last step was a few squirts of a bubblegum pink fly spray to repel flesh-eating blow-flies. Wrinkly skin (which is a Merino trademark) and undocked tails tend to collect more fecal matter, which attracts blow-flies. These insects lay eggs in the folds of the sheep’s rear end and, if left untreated, maggots hatch and devour the live flesh while producing a poisonous ammonia secretion.
The flies are also the reason why some people perform a surgical procedure to remove wool-bearing folds of skin from around the anus, known as mulesing. However, there has been so much international pressure from activist groups (PETA) that the procedure is being phased out of New Zealand. PETA sponsors, like the singer Pink, might take comfort in knowing that somewhere in the world sheep have furry buttholes, but many Kiwi farmers do not. I don’t know how much Pink actually knows about sheep, but she might be surprised to know how many rural farmers know about her.
“Cup of tea?”
Don’t mind if I do. After handling 1,063 lambs (and sorting their tails into piles of ten), I was ready for a break. I had learned a lot, but the most surprising thing I learned was to never forget the milk. No matter how tough-looking and blood covered sheep-tailers are, they take their tea-time seriously and their breakfast tea milky.
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