Missing link: lifting lambs at Rinnegom
While mapping nomadic life I run into several unknowns. What I saw at Ulzii and Ulziburen’s farm, was that typical to nomads, herds-people, animal keepers, Mongolians or just their family that particular summer? To find out I am looking up their counterparts in the Netherlands.
Ecological landscape managers
On Friday March the 28th I went to Rinnegom Landschapsbeheer, where Marijke Dirkson showed me her flock of Kempische heideschapen, or ‘heather sheep’. Sturdy ewes with tall legs and elegant noses, ranging from white to brown and waving hair to tiny curls. Sheep that can survive dreary weather and live of less nutritious grasses and herbs than their Texeler counterparts. They are good at their job: ecological landscape manager. Marijke’s sheep are more than living, breathing lawn mowers: they fertilise the earth and help new seeds to grow in nature reserves and public green.
Who would go outside and who would go to ehhh…
After a long and early train ride I came to the farm on the edge of the dunes. When I entered the barn I was greeted by herder Ilona and Rosa the volunteer. That Friday a flock would be sorted so they could go on transport to one of the meadows of Marijke’s clients. “You came to help?” Ilona asked, “Great! We are separating siblings so every ewe goes outside with just one lamb.” I left my bag in a small tiled room that functioned as canteen, storage and cleaning area in one. I immediately recognised that I my clothes would get incredibly dirty. It was the last day this flock would be inside the barn so they were standing on a maximum amount of poo, pee and hay. I was wearing hiking boots, flared jeans and a cardigan that would hold onto everything it encountered. “Do you have feeling with sheep?” Ilona asked, “Well, I’ve watched them sometimes (from afar) and helped with shaving in Mongolia” I said. A feeble amount of experience as I soon found out, although catching sheep proved to be easier in a tiny pen. We first had to lock the sheep into a smaller space by adding a lot of extra fences to the pen. Then Ilona would scan an ewe, let her out into another area without others following her and shout out the codes of its lambs.
“I don’t want to send Obama to the butcher, he is too cute!”
We would wade through the blearing sheep until we found the right number on the ear tag of a lamb. 02699 Would be a male with a long tag and 62989 would be a female with a ‘T’ shaped tag. Bent over we tried to make out the numbers in crowds of eating, playing, hiding and just dazed lambs. The big ewes were usually not very cooperative and it took a while before I could move them aside without touching them with my hands. Every now en then a triumphant “Got it!” would be shouted and the next one could be searched. When the siblings were male and female the decision was easy: the males would go to eh… well they would be weaned, kept inside the barn and fed until they were big enough to be butchered. The females would go into the fields with their mother and their fates would be decided on a later date.
When there were two female lambs the biggest would be weaned unless the smaller wasn’t cut out to become landscape manager. The same would happen to two males. Sometimes the choice was heart breaking. There was a beautiful elegant coffee brown lamb that I named Obama. It had afro curls and a nice long face. Fortunately for him he had a brother so judgement would be postponed. For some hours he and his brother were standing in a tiny pen with other lambs that needed to be compared. As Marijke was leaving she made it clear that Obama was not the one going outside. Ilona mumbled a bit, but when all the sheep were separated it was clear the Obama had to go. He got a red stripe on his back and I lifted him to all the other blaring lambs calling for their mother.
Gender and other discrimination
Halfway through the selection procedure a van pulled up and the first shift of sheep was loaded onto a trailer. By the time I left there was still a group waiting for a ride and the separated lambs were huddling into the closest corner of their pen. How much and how long would they suffer from the separation? I have no idea. I bet few humans have. The ewes would have new babies following spring. The weaned lambs had each other. Keeping farm animals in the Netherlands is only possible with firm discrimination based on gender and ability. In Mongolia the sheep would stay together in their flock, unless they would be given away to a marrying cousin, or butchered for their meat. Ewes would decide for themselves with whom they would mate. “That might be just as good, ewes have a very good sense of which sheep is strong” Ilona said. I did not expect such a statement in a land of selective breeding. No selective breeding without eating some sheep. Even in Mongolia there is selection: the winter will kill the weak animals and the herder will choose which animal to eat.
It was interesting to see that Ilona had the same sober kind of care as I had seen with Ulziburen. Don’t handle the animals more than necessary as that will create more stress. Keep all fuss to a minimum and do things efficiently. Hold hem secure without squeezing and make decisions that are good for the flock. Care but little sentiment. Except with a few cuties such as Obama. They are sheep, not humans.