Thursday, April 23, 2009

We have couch potatoes for sheep

I'm not going in chronological order with the next couple of posts, so bear with me.  Also, if you are not a sheep/livestock nerd, you are going to be bored and confused.  Also, if you are easily grossed out, don't read the whole thing.  Sorry about that.

Anyway, I left on the 6:44AM train to Edinburgh in order to make it to the SAC by 10:20AM.  I got into Edinburgh at 9:30ish, but the bus system is so confusing for this hapless American that I BARELY made it to the Scottish Agriculture College by 10:30.  Fortunately, they were running a little late, so I was fine.  There were only 5 students (including me) on this tour of SAC sheep unit and research projects.

SAC has two farms where they conduct sheep research, Castlelaw (the one we went to) and Kirkton, in the north of Scotland.  As you might have guessed, sheep production in Scotland and the UK is VASTLY different from how we do it in the US.  They have an entirely different lingo!  Fore example: Tups= rams, therefore tupping time= breeding season.  And that is just the beginning!  Hill sheep fascinate me, they do something called "hefting" on their particular spot in the hill.  They way I understand it, it is kind of like imprinting on a certain geographical area.  Weird.

Castlelaw Farm, currently owned by the Ministry of Defense (note the firing range in the bottom right hand corner) and it is a national park.

We mostly learned about the genetic research they're doing at SAC.  (Also, EPD = EBV [Expected Breeding Values], took me a while to get that one).  Apparently, there is a genetic link between foot rot and slaughter weight.  Lighter weight lambs tend to have less foot rot, which is disappointing.  But the trait is only low to moderately heritable.  They're also looking at the genetic resistance to flukes and intestinal parasites, yay!

They next took us to the CT Scan lab.  They use the CT Scanner on a variety of animals (including penguins and sharks, no lie!) to study all sorts of things, including meat production.  One of the more interesting things they do with it is very precisely measure hip dimensions, to help avoid dystocia in ewes.  Cool!

The CT Scanner.

We then went to the SAC meat lab where they showed us some technology that I was mostly already familiar with, Warner-Bratzler testing and sheer force testing, among other things.  We then went to EGENES which is an organization that analyzes EPDs.  Fun, right?  Mostly dairy and beef EPDs.  
After we finished up at SAC, I totally screwed up the bus system again and spent an hour and a half around Edinburgh on a bus.  FAIL.  I finally, finally found the right bus to get to Hawick, which is about 60 miles south of Edinburgh, but its a two hour ride.  I (somehow) managed to get off on the right stop in Hawick and my ride was waiting there for me!  Well, Gregor Hepburn, the youngest of the family came to pick me up.  Mom had warned me that the Scottish people she had interacted with in Edinburgh were not talkative, and that I would probably have to do most of the talking.  In other words, pretend to be an extrovert.  LIES.  Gregor talked my arm off on the 20 minute ride to Northhouse, their 1,567 acre farm just outside of Hawick.  He told me about the Common Ride coming up, which is a festival based on when riders in the community would patrol the borders of their local farms preventing sheep thefts.  At that point, I told him the totally lame-o (in comparison) story of the Night Riders in Hopkinsville.  He said it sounded like a bunch of super heroes.  hehe
We arrived at Northhouse and let me just tell you, it is BEAUTIFUL.  Here are the pictures.
Rock fences and hedgerows abound.  And a lot of sheep.

TURNIPS.  They don't feed their lambing ewes grain-- this is what they get.  And they eat it like candy!

They also have cattle, Shorthorns (in Scotland!) and Aberdeen Angus.

They don't build barns like this anymore.  

It was getting close to dark, so we all went in and had dinner.  Katherine, the mom and the person we're technically related to (and yes, her name is Katherine Hepburn, lol), is a blur of constant motion.  The woman never stops.  She wanted to make sure I ate as much Scottish food as possible, so I had oat cakes and cheese.  Most disappointingly, she didn't have haggis in the freezer, but we had an excellent chicken casserole and they have tea about 5 times a day, which suits me just fine.  I did not go hungry on this adventure, I assure you.
Ian (the dad) and Adam (the middle son) started opening a big stack of mail and informed me that they had just received their cattle passports they'd ordered.  I must have had a confounded look on my face, so they explained that every cow born on the place (and in all of Europe) must be registered to a national central database within 27 days of birth. When/if they're sold, the 'passport' goes along with them.  I explained that the US was moving towards a similar system with NAIS, but a lot of American farmers are in an uproar because its costing us money.  In the UK, they still have to pay for tags, but the database is free.  However, there has been talk of charging for the database, which would not make them happy.  Right now, only some sheep have to be registered in the database, but they're moving towards ALL of them registered.  Since the Hepburns own over 2,000 sheep I can see how that would be cost prohibitive.  Wow.
The next day, I got up bright and early and wandered around outside for a while until they put me to work (which didn't take long, haha).  I grabbed my camera and took pictures:
In the lambing shed, where they can lamb out over 150 ewes at a time.  I counted.  They lamb from January to April, with different breeds each month.  I would die.

Hills and rock fences.

Ha, I couldn't resist the butt picture of the Texels.  I would like the Texels if it didn't look like they ran headlong into a brick wall.

Sheep! Feasting on turnips.

A pheasant!


A painting of the old house in Thurso, where the Coghills/Campbells came from or worked or something.  I can't get it all straight.

That horse is Suzy, a Belgian Warmblood.  I think she's Adam's.  I helped him put the horses up the night before and she nearly took my arm off in the process.  Clearly, horses can sense when you hate them.  Adam and Gregor interrogated me about horses and racing.  I could tell them about the Triple Crown, but I can't talk intelligently about much else.

In the lambing shed, where I spent a large part of the day.  Those are the jugs, about 3 1/2 feet long and wide each.

Because they lamb out so many ewes, they have a person on watch all the time.  On their busiest day, they had 30 ewes go.  I must say, the mind reels.  I got to help out that day, and I haven't lost my touch even though its been two years since I've pulled a lamb.  The hired guy, Kevin, and I worked on one lamb for about 20 minutes, but its head was turned back.  Katherine came in and tried; no luck.  Then Ian came and pulled the lamb like it was nothing.  I hate people like that.  I thought sure the lamb wouldn't make it, as it had been in the birth canal for about 30 minutes, but my straw in the nose trick (which I don't think they'd ever used) worked and it was an enormous healthy ewe lamb.  A jab (code word for shot) of penicillin for the ewe, iodine on the navel, and Orojet (Scottish NutriDrench) orally, and toss them in a jug, and we're set for the next of several ewes to lamb.  Since that lamb was a single, they grafted a smaller triplet with no problem.  They just rubbed afterbirth all over her and they ewe had no idea.  They also skinned dead lambs and tied the skins on orphan lambs, so they were wearing slightly morbid shirts.  And it all works like a charm!
Most lambs stay in the jugs for a few days and then they toss them into the hills.  This is why we have couch potatoes for sheep at home: we baby them and feed them grain and give them constant antibiotics and generally hover over them.  I guess the difference is that we aren't *trying* to make a living out of it, its just a hobby for us.  That afternoon, we got on the bikes (code word for 4-wheelers, haha) and went out to work in the hills.  I even got to drive one, but I totally spazzed and forgot how to start it (HEY, I'm mechanically challenged, okay?).  I'm sure they got a good chuckle out of that one.
You can just make out their circular stone working pen there in the middle.  COOL!

The bike out in the hills.

I'm not sure who or what we were sorting/hauling, but I don't think I was much help because I didn't know what was going on.  They have a bunch of excellently trained Border Collies that do most of the work.  I just drove around and pretended to help while I got pictures on the sly.  haha
We went back to the lambing shed for a while, where Katherine asked me if I could tube a lamb.  Once again, I haven't done it in two years, but I managed not to kill the lamb (WIN!).  They had a calf that was badly dehydrated and they vet came by and gave it a glucose IV.  They later tried to milk the cow and tube it, but the calf didn't make it, sadly.
After that long day, we went back and had lamb chops for dinner.  Home grown ones!  And they have this lambing tradition of making a very strange strawberry mousse thing.  I suppose it is like us making doughnuts on the first snow day of the school year.  We talked about Gregor's plans for the upcoming year.  He will turn 18 in November and its already been accepted at (are you ready?) the University of Edinburgh Vet School.  That's because Britain's education system is a lot different than ours.  Their high school is 6 years long and you get to choose what you study.  So he'll be a vet 4 years before anyone else his age in the US will be.  Bizarre.

That night, I showed them pictures of the goats.  They were impressed, even though the only goats they have had contact with are WAY WAY back in the hills and are consequently feral.  They were also impressed that I can kill, skin, and process a sheep or goat with just a knife.  Who says those meat science skills won't come in handy?
And I couldn't get a picture of the whole family because, basically, they wouldn't stay still long enough for that.  Last summer, they hosted Scotsheep 2008, which is basically a huge festival/convention/meeting for the Scottish sheep industry.  They had over 3500 people traipsing around their farm for tours and convention stuff, which must have been an enormous headache.  I did find this picture on the internet of Ian and Katherine.
Ian, Katherine, and the Scotsheep chairman (don't know him...).

I had to leave the next day, as I've got a paper and a take home history exam to do.  Not cool.  I could definitely live there, just working sheep all day in the Scottish borders.  I might yet.
I went back to Edinburgh, as I had a small Harry Potter pilgrimage to complete.  I went to the Elephant House, where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter on napkins when she was poor and couldn't afford paper (I think she can afford plenty now, needless to say).  It was way overpriced and the tea wasn't that great (I know these things, as I've had LOTS of tea over here), but I did break down and get a mug.  I made it back to Preston around 6PM, but I already miss being with the sheep in Hawick.  And the very friendly Hepburns.
Plus, who knew that I'd get lamb slime all over me while on my study abroad semester in Europe.

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