What’s in a Name?

When we first moved to the farm, sheep were surprisingly hard to come by.

Prices were at record highs and no one had any to spare. Of course, I had my heart set on dorpers, with their crisp back heads and necks, their shedding ability and their stocky bodies, good for the butcher. Unfortunately, at the time they were quite trendy and with that and the general sheep shortage they were almost impossible to buy.

Spring came; a very wet spring after a very wet winter and the grass sprang to life, grass everywhere, up to my knees.

“You may just need to get some sheep, any sheep, and not wait until you can get your fancy sheep,” said my friend Adam, looking with concern at the lush growth that would quickly become a fire hazard when the rains stopped.

But I didn’t want that. I wanted the dorpers, I had my heart set – it was my favourite lamb to buy at the butchers and I wanted to grow it for my very own.  So we borrowed a fancy brushcutter and hooked up the slasher to the tractor, mowing with machines until we could with animals.

Meanwhile, I got an email from my friend Kylie- everyone knew about our no-sheep problem- who said she had a friend down the peninsula from us who had a ram that needed a good home. He was a wiltipoll, not a dorper, but at least he was a shedder and he was, most importantly, free.

We borrowed a friend’s 4-wheel drive and hired a covered trailer and headed off down the road. The brewmaster and I discussed names on the way.

“Cecil,” he said. “It has to be Cecil, like in Footrot Flats.”

“Cecil? No way, that’s an old, decrepit sheep’s name. I want something strong, powerful – he is going to be the father of our lambs! He is going to be the foundation of our flock! What about Nero? Or Thor?

And I hate Footrot Flats anyway.”

Bickering ensued, and continued off and on over the hour and some ride to the farm.

We arrived, shook hands all around, and were led over to the paddock that held the ram. He was big and clearly old, and as it was spring, he was shedding, wool hanging off in great strips every which way. He slowly shambled his way over to the fence to say hello. And I knew, despite my protests, that he was indeed Cecil.

Cecil came home to live with us, and within a few more months of searching I managed to buy an alpaca and 3 pregnant dorpers (at exorbitant cost), and voilà, I had a flock.


Cecil and Siri

Despite, or perhaps because of, his creaky old ways, Cecil quickly proved himself to be a lovely ram, sweet and gentle, who would come over to me and lean against me while I scratched behind his ears. We spent hours together watching the girls, and then their lambs as they began to arrive one by one. One of these babies, to my elation, was a beautiful pure dorper, born to Ma Costa.

As the girls came back into season, Cecil got to work admirably. He sired lambs with all of my girls, as well as with three ewes that the neighbours brought over for servicing. The flock was satisfying to watch, six ewes and their lambs, all white and black and eating that grass to a manageable height.

The dorper ram lamb grew and grew, and was perfectly built. Nice wide body and broad backside- the great dorper stance, built like a brick house. We had no ewe lambs born, so I decided to keep him and breed him with Cornelia and Molly, the other girls that were not his mother. I wanted a name that would promise lots and lots of babies, and so we christened him Genghis.


Genghis and Paolo

Genghis and Paolo, another ram lamb born a couple of months earlier, spent their days together and I spent a lot of time with them, feeding them from my hands and getting them accustomed to my touch and presence.   Winter came and I left for my annual holiday, farmsitter trained up and in place, taking a much, much needed break. When I returned 6 weeks later, I dashed straight from the taxi out to the farm to see my boys. I was amazed at how much they had grown in that time! Elated, I called them to the gate, stretching my arm through the bars to give them a treat of lupins and a scratch.

Paolo came up to my hand, accepted his treat, and then I moved my hand over to Genghis. He snuffled up the last few lupins from my palm, took a step back and rammed my hand, HARD, causing my elbow to hyperextend over the crosswire of the gate. I whipped my hand back to my side, stunned, hurt, and devastated. What the hell was that? Never, in a million years, would I have thought that my sweet baby would do something like that.

I made my way back to the house in a state of shock. Clearly he could have broken my arm. I had been warned about rams- never trust the rams, never let them get too familiar, but I thought my boy would be different, he knew me. He knew I would never hurt him, why would he do that to me?

Unfortunately, as Genghis grew older, I realized that this event wasn’t a one-off deal. Every time I went into the paddock I had to keep an eye on him as the minute my back was turned, he would have a go at me. I began to keep a stick with me at all times to give him a whack if he tried. I hated having to be wary of him all the time, but I wanted his lambs in my paddocks- I wanted a mighty flock of beautiful dorpers.

We gave Cecil to the neighbours (where he died of old age a couple of years later) and let Genghis get to work. His first crop of lambs arrived, so perfect, so beautiful, with nice short tails and that classic dorper build.   But when the first girl was about a week old, I noticed that I could see a bit of pink showing under her nose. I caught her and examined her closely. Where her lower jaw should have met her upper, it instead extended out past, known as an undershot jaw. A defect I had read about as something to look out for and avoid when selecting breeding stock. Then one by one, as they each approached about 5 days old, 3 more of the girls he sired that season and the next developed the same problem.

And so, off to freezer camp he went. An unpredictable ram that threw deformed lambs had no place on my property.

Meanwhile, I had been reading a lot about pure-bred sheep, and became convinced that the rigour required in breeding such animals was beyond the scope of a lot of people that had to make money, thus culling animals that needed it may not happen as often as it should. And the so-called “commercial” animals that I was able to buy were actually ones that should have been culled, not sold to someone who wanted to make more sheep. And after this crop of deformed lambs, I realised that the world of pure-bred sheep was not for me.

However, there was one sheep stud that I knew and trusted, Marli Wiltipoll. In our first year on the farm, I had taken a pasture management course where I met Mary. Since the course, Mary and Alick had become good friends of ours, so helpful to a newbie (I will at some point tell the story of how I watched Mary, in her late 60’s, fly through the air to tackle Cecil who did not want to be caught to have his feet examined) so when I needed a new ram, I knew who to go to.

Mary had a boy who was a late drop lamb, not as big as some of their other boys, but he had sound breeding and a nice nature. They sold him to us for a steal and lunch (and those of you who have had lunch at Tansley Farm know that this was a solid deal for everyone, I think they may have left around midnight), and he quickly made himself at home with the girls.

We were then faced with the name issue again. This time? No warrior names. No names that harkened to violent conquests. We needed a nice name, a gentle name, a name that paid respect to the ram’s Australian heritage as well as the Yorkshire homeland of his breeders.   There was only one that would do- Kenny[1].

Kenny, at just 2, is not as gentle as old Cecil was, but he has none of that unpredictable skittish violence that was so characteristic of Genghis. He has bumped me a couple of times, once when the flock was happily following me down the hill to get some treats and as he barrelled along he had trouble stopping and ran into my bum, and from time to time when I am done with scratching him and he is not yet ready for me to be done. But I am a much wiser and more wary shepherd now and always pay close attention to his body language, and tap his shins when he starts to get out of line. He is still a young boy and I am sure he will get even mellower with time. But for now, he suits me just fine, as we stand side-by-side in the early morning light watching the flock together.





[1] We are fans of the Australian classic film, Kenny, as well as the British film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels that featured a sweet and bumbling Yorkshire criminal named Kenny.

One comment

  • lana

    What a great history from a graceful shepherd!

    18 September 2014

Leave a comment


Email(will not be published)*


Your comment*

Submit Comment

© Copyright Tansley Farm - Designed by Pexeto