Sheep to the slaughter

8th February 2013 at 00:00

I haven't mentioned my sheep recently. That's because for the past few years they've been no bother and - like kids who quietly get on with it - they're easily forgotten.

Not being a problem is unusual for sheep as they mostly spend their lives trying to commit suicide in the worst way possible. Sheep never just pass away. They bloat up into ovine space hoppers, lacerate their throats on barbed wire, or turn themselves into an all-you-can-eat buffet for blowflies. The afternoon I spent combing maggots from a weeping wound is not one I'll forget.

So it was a surprise last week when I discovered that my ancient pet ewe (a relic from my Felicity KendalThe Good Life period) was dying relatively peacefully. I was shocked at how sad I felt. Although she wasn't much to look at, she had been a resilient old-timer.

Then it struck me that the problem wasn't so much her death, it was what to do with her body. Most pets are easy to dispose of: all you need is a shoebox, a spade and two lolly sticks. But a 200lb sheep carcass is not so easy to shift.

Thanks to regulations from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, dead sheep have to be disposed of through an approved collector of fallen stock. I rang the local agent, who agreed to pick her up the next morning as long as she was left near the road. This would have been fine, except that in a typical display of recalcitrance she had died at the top of the field. And to make matters worse, it had been snowing like buggery for days.

I rang a fellow teacher and we set about making a plan. First of all, being women, we had to get all the sighing and crying and hugging out of the way before we could get on with the task. Our initial attempt to shift her was delayed by a flurry of literary allusions. You can't mix together two English teachers, a dead sheep and a snowstorm and not expect a discussion about pathetic fallacy to dominate the plan.

Finally we wrapped her in a blanket and stuck her on a sledge. With my friend at the rear and me pulling at the front, we guided our macabre passenger through my snowy garden. It was like Topsy and Tim's Snowy Day as conceived by Damien Hirst.

We left her next to my car, covered in the blanket. The next morning, at 7.30am sharp, the knacker's van arrived and two ruddy-faced blokes in overalls climbed out. I pointed to the old ewe, snug in her woollen blanket, and suggested that they might want to use it as a stretcher.

"Nae bother, pet, ah'll jus' drag hor oot by the foot," said the youngest, yanking her across the snow then chucking her into the wagon, while his cheery partner quipped, "Ah'd say it'd be nice to see yer again but ah bet you'd rather that wuz didn't."

Oddly, the experience was cathartic. The great thing about death is that it recalibrates the way we see life. Instead of measuring our puny existence against our ability to meet government targets, we measure our success in terms of our ability to remain alive. The presence of death makes everything epic. We cease being the walk-ons in a Michael Gove farce and turn into the tragic heroes of a Shakespearean drama.

Admittedly, a dead sheep offers only a second's respite; a dead relative stops the clocks for so much longer. Two days later, the usual creeping work anxieties prevented me from sleeping. I tried counting sheep but one was always missing.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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