I imagine most farmers know that cows and sheep groom their offspring with their teeth as well as their tongues. I knew this, but it was filed away at the back of my mind and if anyone had asked me how they groom, I would have only mentioned licking – until recently, that is, when I had three reminders.
One of our cows gave birth to twins, but after licking them both dry she chose to keep one and utterly reject the other. Over the 45 years we’ve had a suckler herd something like this has only happened four times before. We tried every trick we knew to persuade her to rear both but her obstinacy was greater than our cunning. I now spend a considerable time each day grooming (with brush and curry comb) between one and five other freshly calved cows in order to distract them while the rejected calf is able to suckle. As a result he gets ample milk, but none of them groom him – that is my job.
I groom him and in return he grooms me with his tongue and his teeth, carefully pulling at my trousers (and the skin beneath!). He also licks my hands and arms with his rough tongue, but I keep my face out of reach.
On the ovine front, one of the five ewes to give birth to triplets this spring produced one lamb that was tiny, wool-less and to all appearances premature (though its two siblings appeared full term). It was rapidly becoming cold and stiff as the ewe was licking the bigger lambs first, so I rushed it to the house, wrapped it in a woollen cardigan and placed this on a hot water bottle by a radiator. He very gradually came to life as he warmed up, and I gave him very small quantities of colostrum via a syringe.
Providing milk and comfort were painstaking but possible. Grooming such an infinitesimal, tight-skinned titch was not.
By day three I felt I could risk taking him back to his mother, kangaroo-like in my coat, in the vague hope that she might accept him. But she wouldn’t even look at him. Every other ewe (and lamb) failed to notice him too, except one.
This seemingly compassionate ewe saw his weeny head peeping out of my coat and gave him a kindly lick, then with incredible delicacy, went on to bite and tease the stiff skin on his head and neck into a soft and comfortable state and as she did this I could feel his whole being relax with pleasure. I placed him on the ground and she continued grooming him until every bit was done. In the space of a very few minutes he was transformed from a crumpled object into a lamb with self-esteem.
The third reminder occurred when I was stroking a particularly friendly lamb recently, and to thank me for the evident enjoyment she ‘stroked’ my arm – with her teeth. I was grateful for her idea of a reward, but it was verging on the painful.
One of the benefits of still having a small flock of sheep (we have 35 ewes this year but are building up the flock by keeping our ewe lambs for breeding) is being able to know them as individuals.
Four days ago we merged the 24 ewe lambs born last spring with the recently lambed ewes. Part of the reason for doing this was to increase the proportion of adult sheep to lambs to reduce the need for wormers (older sheep having natural immunity, baby lambs having little or none). The other reason was to shut a field up ready for haymaking. The lambs had not seen their mothers for the past six months – half their lifetime in fact, and it has been great fun to see them become re-acquainted. The interaction between the grown-up ewe lambs and their little siblings, however, has been varied: some show an interest in them and some just give them a fleeting glance and carry on grazing.
We talk about people behaving like sheep, which assumes that sheep all behave in the same way – and when frightened, of course, they do. But in other ways that’s not been my experience, and the reintroduction of last year’s ewe lambs to their mothers provided an example of this. One of the ewes is a loner. When I went back to check on them a few hours after mixing the two flocks I couldn’t initially see her. I eventually found that she’d taken her two current lambs and also her yearling daughter and they were all sitting together under a thorn bush at the far side of the second field to which the flock had access, almost half a mile from the rest of the flock.
The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young is available to purchase for £14.99. To order a copy, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph: Steph French
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