I turned 63 on May 16, and for all these many years, “happy birthday” has been an oxymoron. No matter how eagerly I anticipate the day, if something could go wrong, it does. Oh, there have been good birthdays, but they are far and few between. And some have been awful, like the surprise birthday party when I was seven and I, a tomboy of the first order, was compelled to play hostess and wear a frilly pink dress, or the birthday when my old dog died. Most, however, are so blah and so disappointing, despite the joys I’d planned, that I cringe as the big day approaches.
This year was different.
It began in January when Margot Grim, a shepherd-friend from Johnstown, Ohio, and cofounder of the American Classic Cheviot Sheep Association gave me a pair of adorable suckling Classic Cheviot ewe lambs. My husband of 37 years, John, agreed to drive to Ohio to pick them up in time for my birthday.
Then Lori Olson, my best friend and partner-in-sheep from Boscobel, Wisconsin, asked if she could keep me company while John was away. What fun! Lori hasn’t visited in years.
John arranged for his client from the group home to ride along since his client loves animals and road trips. They’d leave early May 13, stay overnight, pick up the lambs early the next day and drive back before evening. Lori would arrive on the evening of May 12. I could hardly wait!
We pause now for a bit of background: In 1977 a British penpal who raises sheep mailed me a copy of the British Wool Marketing Board’s beautifully photo-illustrated publication British Sheep Breeds: Their Wool and Its Uses. I was smitten! Though a dozen breeds beckoned, one stood out among the rest: Scottish Blackface. These sheep (known here and abroad as “Blackies”) are medium-size, white, carpet-wool and meat sheep with white-speckled black faces and legs. Obscure monastery records dating to 12th-century Scotland frequently refer to their origin as Scottish Highland prototypes.
I went to the library and read all I could; then I vowed I’d raise Blackies one day. However, like many other wonderful British breeds, Scottish Blackface are commonplace in their homeland and scarce or unavailable in North America. So when my dream of keeping sheep came true, I chose small, old-time Cheviots, being another hardy British hill breed, to raise instead.
In 2004 BowTie Press hired me to write Hobby Farms Sheep: Small-Scale Sheep Keeping for Pleasure and Profit. While researching that book, I discovered that Dick Harward, secretary of the American Scottish Blackface Association, raised Blackies in Willow River, Missouri, less than 50 miles from our home. We went, I saw, I seriously lusted for those sheep.
One thing held me back. Cheviots are polled, meaning that they never grow horns. Adult Scottish Blackface rams have long, brawny, spiraling horns. Because all rams are hard-wired to battle by head-ramming one another during the autumn rut, horned and hornless don’t mix: horned vs. hornless head-bashing sessions often result in broken necks for hornless warriors. I couldn’t risk my other rams; we only have a single ram paddock, and John hates building fences.
Two years ago I was given a copy of Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story, which, along with Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Zlateh the Goat quickly become my favorite piece of animal fiction. Of the many clever and charming ovine characters in Three Bags Full, my favorite turned out to be Zora, sheep of the abyss, a wise Connemara Blackface ewe (read an excerpt about Zora at my Hobby Farms Mondays with Martok blog entry, “Mom’s Favorite Book” ). Connemara Blackface sheep are Irish versions of Scottish Blackface. That settled it! Come hell or high water, I was going to have my very own Zora some day (horned and polled ewes generally coexist peacefully).
Fast-forward to Lori’s arrival on May 12. Her car tools down our driveway and into the yard. John rushes out to greet Lori while I yank on my shoes. They’re figuratively grinning and nudging one another as John calls out, “Come see the puppy Lori has in her car.”
“Puppy?” I’m thinking as I walk toward the car. John whips open the back door to reveal . . . a Scottish Blackface lamb in an airline crate! “Happy birthday!” they cry in unison. “Baaah! Baaaaaaah,” cries the lamb. I am poleaxed for a heartbeat; then I realize that now I have my Blackface ewe!
But no. It’s better. Much, much better. I find my birthday present is a seven-week-old, registered Scottish Blackface ram. John’s going to fence a separate pasture for the little guy. In line with this year’s Three Bags Full naming theme, the bonnie wee lad’s everyday name is to be Othello. Zora is destined to join us next year.
We set the new boy up in the pen I’d erected earlier in the day for the baby ewes from Ohio. We install a tame adult Cheviot wether, Louie, as Othello’s reluctant nanny. Louie mournfully baahs to his friends in the sheep fold. Othello screams for his mom. I grin from ear to ear, thinking “What a birthday present! This is my best birthday ever.” But my birthday was just getting started. (to be continued)
Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and Get Your Goat! to be published in 2010. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.