An occasional column by author, musician, and organic farmer Chris Stewart about life on his sheep farm in the Alpujarra region of Andalusia, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
I’m not much of a stockman. In spite of working with them for some forty years, sheep all look more or less the same to me. But occasionally you do come across a great sheep, one that stands head and shoulders above the flock. Such a creature is Belle. She’s known as Belle because at the moment she is the only sheep with a bell… thus Belle.
The layman might wonder, from time to time, how one chooses the sheep to hang the bells on. It’s like this: If a ewe gets too fat, it’s often hard to get her in lamb (pregnant). One way of slimming down a fat ewe is to put a big bell on her. So each time she lowers her head to take a munch of grass, she finds the bell hanging in the way, and her teeth cannot reach the luscious morsel to sever it with a view to mastication, and subsequent regurgitation and rumination.
Sheep learn fast though, probably as a consequence of not having a great deal to think about, so they soon learn to lay the bell down, tip it on its side, and bite. Of course, this takes longer than normal unencumbered grazing, so they quickly slim down enough to enjoy the attentions of the ram, who tends to prefer his ewes slender and shapely.
Belle was the fattest ewe in the flock when I last hung the bell; she also seemed to possess what I can only describe as a positive attitude – although it’s hard to attribute this sort of thing to a sheep.
During a month when half the flock lambed, I had to shut them in to keep an eye on them. Belle, who was clearly soon to lamb, stayed with the outside flock, and ranged by day and night over the hills behind the farm. Finally, the flock came down in silence; Belle had stayed on the hill, obviously having lambed. I went up to look for her but to no avail.
‘She’s a good mother that one,’ said Manolo, the Hired Hand. ‘She’ll look after her lamb, and bring it down when she’s ready.’
A week passed and not a sign of Belle. I was beside myself with worry and grief for the loss of a great sheep – to say nothing of the bell.
‘That’s the end of that one,’ said Manolo. ‘I saw four foxes at la Herradura this morning.’
I groaned, for I had seen two foxes that very morning at the top of the hill. A fox will take a newborn lamb; it looked like bad news. But then one morning there was a jaunty bongling, and tripping down the hill came Belle with a lamb at her heels. She had given birth to, and protected the little creature, high on a hillside that was seething with hungry foxes. That is a great sheep. I kept her lamb for breeding, and called him Bill.