There are many good things, I have discovered, about having Ouessant sheep. They are sturdy little blighters, almost small enough to count as cabin-baggage on Ryanair, yet wild and rugged enough to stand up to the rigours of a French winter without any pampering. Best of all, they look after lambing all by themselves.
Not for me the sleepless nights, with a torch, a pessary and a pair of rubber gloves always by my side. No, with Ouessants, each lamb tends to pop out like a sweet from a Pez dispenser in the middle of the night, with no need for hot towels or stirrups or birthing pools. Nature takes care of the whole business.
This is why I am watching Daphne very carefully today. So heavily pregnant that she looks like a Space Hopper in an astrakhan coat, the poor dear has been staggering around – a few stiff steps, and then a collapse again – since lunchtime. I gather that this is quite common when a sheep is close to giving birth. But as I watch, I can’t help thinking that something’s not quite right.
Daphne stares back at me, bleating like a fog-horn. Time after time, she hauls herself to her feet, takes a few knock-kneed steps, and sinks back to the ground, craning her neck to the sky, her eyes wide, her black lips drawn back to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. The pain and strain are palpable; I wince as I watch.
An hour later, and something protudes from Daphne’s back end: a hoof perhaps, or a tiny snout? Aha! So everything’s going to be fine because, after all, Ouessants look after lambing all by themselves.
Now comes the rain. It rains so hard that the landscape is obscured behind a filthy grey curtain. The other Rastafarians scarper for cover beneath the trees. Daphne just lies there in the wet grass, pushing for France. Neck and legs stiffly extended, she looks like a broken rocking-horse. And then she lies so still that she might be dead.
Something is definitely not right. Besides the tiny hoof, I can see pink, too, as if part of Daphne were coming out, rather than an inky lamb. In a panic, I riffle through the Lambing Problems section of Sheep for Beginners, before heading out into the rain. I’m still a few paces away from the stricken mum when she staggers to her feet and canters off, a pair of hooves clearly protruding from her back end.
I have been resisting phoning Gilles, my blessed neighbour, because he is in the middle of lambing his own ewes, and has already been up to La Folie once this week, to help me castrate a lamb. But this is an emergency.
Gilles rolls up his sleeve and begins to feel around inside Daphne.
“There’s no head,” he growls.
Teeth-clenched, I hold Daphne while Gilles winces and puffs and mutters to himself, with his forearm buried inside her.
“Stop pushing, damn it,” he barks.
“Sorry,” I cough, hastily releasing Daphne’s shoulders.
Gilles chuckles. “Not you. Her.” Streams of blood and jelly trickle in rivulets down his forearm. Even by my own standards, I feel unusually helpless.
At last, Gilles draws something out of Daphne that looks like a wet black sock with a dead fish inside it.It seems impossible that anything so mangled and puny and slicked with blood and mucus could be alive. Daphne emits a low bleat, like the sound of an electric razor whose battery is almost dead, and Gilles lays the wet sock beside her, so that she can see what she has done.
In her exhaustion, Daphne begins to lick the wet corpse. And I blink, open-mouthed, as the corpse raises its head and emits a wavery cry, as if an asthmatic old woman were attempting to play the oboe for the first time. Gilles seems quite unmoved by this tumultuous event, which makes me want to do a double-back somersault.
“What would have happened, Gilles, if you hadn’t done what you did?” I ask.
“It would have died inside her in an hour or two. And she would have died, too, tomorrow.”
Later, I wander out to the sheep-shelter, to see the new lamb’s tail whirring like a propeller as it feeds. I have decided to name him Gilles. Mind you, I don’t suppose I shall tell Gilles this, anymore than I shall tell anyone, ever again, that the wonderful thing about Ouessants is that they look after lambing all by themselves.