February 13 2021
Yesterday, on the farm, we suffered the loss of a friend. Friendships are hard to come by, take time to mature and grow, and add meaning to our lives, so I do not take this loss lightly. On the farm there are a variety of animals and over the last fifty years or so, when it was a dairy, there have been hundreds of animals. But since the mid 1990’s we have had a dwindling number of farmers as well as animals, the latter reduced to mostly pets. Yesterday we lost one of our pets, a sheep, our oldest Horned Dorset ram. He died peacefully in the barn where my nephews nursed him after a terrible night of being unable to get to his feet, hidden by the dark and alone. He was ten years old, a ripe age for a sheep by any measure. We had been watching him closely, knowing death seemed close to our old friend.
Wait…a sheep you say. Don’t be so dramatic you think. And you would be right in some ways, because death on the farm is not personal and it can be very common.
But hear me out, for all these last ten years this sheep was the alpha of our little flock of mismatched barnyard pets. A few sheep, a few goats, a few cows, and a spattering of teenagers. All of them watched his every move when around the barnyard. He would prance and pose when on alert, and always get to the grain first or there was hell to pay. He came to the farm at just the right time, this alpha. He filled a void after the death of my cousin, just a little bit of that void. You see this sheep was the first addition of livestock after my cousin’s death at the tender age of 54, suffering a quirky farming accident in that very barn yard. Gone leaving fences to mend, sheep to shear, cows to get up, and boys to raise. And those boys, those teenagers, have spent nearly half their lives with that sheep and notably…not their dad.
The Horned Dorset is an ancient English breed known for being a good wool producer and good to eat. The lambs fatten quickly. The breed’s most notable feature however is that they are aseasonal, meaning they conceive year round. Most breeds conceive in the fall and lamb in the spring. Any sheep herder can see the value of this attribute right away. You can have lambs year round. Because of these attributes you might be surprised to learn they are threatened. Ever since scientists at NC State University developed the Poled Dorset, poled have no horns, the world wide number of Horned Dorset has collapsed. Farmers prefer not to battle a 250 pound ram with horns come spring shearing! We shear our sheep each spring more for their comfort in our hot weather than the 7-9 pounds of wool we get in return, though for the last few years our sheep-shearer has been processing the wool into socks and hats. Our summer heat would threaten the sheep’s health without a close shave, this isn’t cool southern England.
Over the last ten years this ram grew big and strong. He matured into a robust healthy dominate male, the alpha, siring many lambs. He learned from the other animals, and the fence, the extent of his domain. He learned to tolerate the veterinarian, and the sheep-shearer, and other tasks we asked of him. And we asked a lot. He became none other than the mascot of UNC athletics; Rameses XXI, the 21st mascot over 97 years on the farm. Both my nephews grew right along beside him, learning to walk the fence line after storms, to do the chores along with school work, and to bottle feed babies born in the bitter cold. Ohh, and take him to the sidelines of UNC football games. This ram arrived on the farm just at the right time for those of us that were feeling a void. His passing sounds the echo of the loss we suffered ten years ago with the death of my cousin. Both went down in that barn yard, both unable to get up. So yes, this common sheep’s death was different, and personal.