Monday, January 19, 2009

I'm typing this blog in my parent’s house in England, a post-Christmas trip to see family and friends. It‘s Gabrielle‘s turn to look after all animals. She's only just returned home from doing the same thing: it's like that when you have livestock.

Last spring, three male lambs were born to our three ewes—one each is normal for the Ouessant breed—and we bought another two ewes, one with her lamb. Because they’re such a small breed, if we took the lambs for meat after six months, I think we’d have something not much larger than a rabbit. So, they’ve been left to grow on into their second year. A lamb is only a lamb for a year and then, it becomes a hogget. We plan to take one every three months, to provide us with meat throughout this year. And, all being well, we’re expecting another four lambs soon.

If you’ve added up all our ewes, you might be asking why we’re not expecting five lambs. Towards the end of the summer, the eldest ewe came down with mastitis. With the considerable and generous help of our vet, the wonderful Dr Hamadi Mouhli, she survived the illness but lost her udder. Although it became gangrenous, which sounds awful, the body isolated the offending item, which then dried up and fell off, several months later. So, she didn’t run with the ram this year.
The photo shows her during her illness, with attendant carer. At first, we isolated her, until we were told it wasn’t contagious. When we reintroduced the rest of the flock, the ram apparently sensed her distress, staying by her side for several days … touching.

She’s an old girl and is now missing some front teeth, what’s known as broken mouthed. Teeth are important to a grazing sheep; to some extent you can age a sheep by its teeth. If a sheep lives to old age, it will eventually lose too many teeth and starve. We’re pleased we managed to nurse her through her illness but now, for this old girl, her time was up. I asked Bernard, our kindly “retired” boucher de campagne (an itinerant slaughter man and butcher) to help, along with a new friend of ours, Paddy, who used to run hundreds of sheep over the Cumbrian fells. We slaughtered the biggest hogget and the old girl. As they’re used to me handling them, that it was done on the premises and that I used a captive bolt humane stunner, they really didn’t know anything about it. I’ve watched Bernard at work a few times but this time, under his guidance, I then bled, skinned and gutted the carcasses.

One part of the process that’s been a mystery, then an impossibility, is hanging the meat before butchery. I recently found this page, which explains very clearly the why’s and wherefore’s of hanging meat. The impossible part is that we don’t have a suitably large fridge, until recently: the cold snap has turned our un-insulated workshop into that large fridge! I suspended both carcasses and put a thermometer next to them to ensure the ambient temperature remained below 4°C. The hogget hung for four days and the mutton for a week.

With mutton now on the menu, we’re in good company: HRH Prince Charles is campaigning to reintroduce us to the pleasures of eating mutton, “to support British sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals, and to get this delicious meat back on the nation’s plates. From the photo below, it seems that good quality mutton is not the only thing he enjoys getting his hands on!