I realised by the July of our first year here in Normandy, when the grass was thigh high, that I was going to have to mow the meadow. The orchard is planted with apple and pear trees, mostly aged and rarely trimmed, bent and gnarled like old crones leaning drunkenly at impossible angles or supported on a crutch formed from the fallen limb of an even older tree but the grass needs keeping down.
I had no farm equipment and there are only so many wild flower arrangements one can make. So, one hot spring day, I went to mow the meadow with my dog, as you do. The small lawn mower made little progress but help was at hand.
Our neighbour, Gerard Capon, a stocky agriculteur (small farmer – more PC than peasant), holly-cheeked, with a broke-toothed all-embracing grin, took pity on me and came to make hay. Flat-capped, in his blue overalls, a dead ‘gitane mais’ spittle-dried to the corner of his mouth, he drove over, with his son, in his tractor.
He and his wife Rolande, worn down by work and palely weary, had two strong sons, Patrick, the image of his dad and Bruno who was training to be a mechanic. Gerard scythed and raked while Patrick aged 11 or 12 scrunched around on the newly acquired tractor like Cynddylan, the Welsh hill farmer, full of pride and convinced of the promise of a bright future that new technology brings.
It so happened that the architect we had used to approve our house renovation designs had a charming anglophile wife who had a small flock of Suffolks and that appeared to be the perfect solution. Not only did I not have to learn to drive a tractor but sheep were cheap. So I was able to acquire two full ewes and awaited the spring to increase my flock by 100 per cent.
The ewes were huge and stubborn with minds of their own. We had to replace our wooden stake fence, barbed wire and baler twine with something more robust plus miles of sheep fencing which we bought on tick at Lebeurrier’s, the general store in Pont l’Eveque. I cut a hole in the broken down shed we had used as a garage, laid in the straw bedding and waited for lambing time.
Gerard Capon, gaitered in mud, came over again that year and shoved his arm up the ewe to pull out the lamb that had wanted to emerge backwards. He grinned hugely, quaffed a glass of red and went back to his milking. The four sheep we now had, needed to be wormed, injected, vaccinated and sheared in summer. I usually managed to round them up into the building with the help of the three dogs, a huge crook and Joel Taquet, my trusty gardener. I learnt to dock tails and put rubber rings around the testicles to castrate the males.
All went well except that one ewe had three little ones during the third year and refused to look after them. One she lay on and killed and she did the same with the second before I discovered she had mastitis and could only feed one lamb. Sophie’s choice for Sheep. On the vet’s advice, I was to inject a substance up the teat with a long needle and cover the teat with a stinging wintergreen type cream.
The ewe did not take kindly to that and on day two of the treatment, as I was bending forward with a rope in my hand to rope her in, she rushed me, shot between my legs and carried me out of the building on her back like a bucking bronco, me clinging to her haunches for dear life. She collapsed under my weight into a bed of nettles.
I managed to wrestle her back into the shed and inject the teat but she spent the next hour bucking and rearing and the shed’s sides heaved and swelled with ‘Whams’ and ‘Bams’ like a comic book cartoon. I removed the last lamb, fearing she would sit on that one too. We called him Lazarus and had to bottle feed him.
I’d sit contentedly in the kitchen holding the lamb in my arms as I fed him and gazing out at the magenta sun, rising beyond the intricate fretwork of winter trees. I would spend many crisp spring mornings huddled like this in my dressing gown and gumboots, over the years, watching my little world come to life. Some dogs didn’t take kindly to a lamb in the house so I would have to shout out, at feeding times, if Ted came in for coffee, ‘lamb in the kitchen’. For all our inexpertise, we lost very few lambs. It was usually newborns to a fox, for our sheep lambed outside.
After the first year I needed to buy a Suffolk ram. I was put in touch with a rich Parisian (that’s the only kind we have in Normandy) who had a ram he wanted to sell.
We trudged through the pastures while he pointed out all the lovely lambs his ram had fathered over the last few years and eventually came to a small heavily fenced enclosure with huge pointy stakes. It looked very much like a mini-Western town waiting for Indians to circle. Within was the biggest, most brutish ram I have ever seen. Instead of the normal broad forehead and horns, his forehead looked as if it were encased in a Norman or Viking fighting helmet with a nose guard on it. His head seemed to gather to a ridge over his nose and he pawed the ground in fiercesome fashion.
“You don’t have children, do you?” said the Parisian airily. “He doesn’t like children. As a matter of fact, he’s not too fond of dogs either.” The creature was all of 200 kilos as far as I could see. There was no way I could control him. He was like an inner city school packed with delinquents.
I did eventually manage to buy a ram I could handle whom we named Gaston after my French penfriend’s Dad. I arranged it so that Gaston le Blin (in Norman dialect – le Blin is le Belier or ram) did his marital duty in early October so the sheep could lamb outside in March or April.
I usually did rounds with a strong lamp every two hours in the night and only once needed to rescue a lamb at six in the morning. He was given a quick blow-dry and popped in a warm oven. Sometimes I would have to draw the first milk from a reluctant mother and tie her in a pen with her babe.
As I got older, I found that the Suffolk were too big for me to handle on my own and that there was more work involved in this farming stuff than I had anticipated. I couldn’t afford a tractor and nobody wanted my hay so another solution had to be found.
I found it in the Vale of Glamorgan whilst researching the Norman occupation of Wales and buying my new Border Collie, Morwen – the Welsh for Lassie.
The photos enclosed with this article are of Julia’s hand painted kitchen tiles showing Gaston le Blin
“Gaston le Blin” © Julia McLean
“Feeding of Lazarus” © Julia McLean
“Herding the sheep” © Julia McLean
“Morwen, after a hard day on the sheep hustings!” © Julia McLean
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