You can't pull the wool over their eyes

28th March 2008 at 00:00
Auctions, live births and casting on are all part of learning at an Inverurie school. By setting up their own company, The Sheep School, pupils find out about running a business, farming, the facts of life and the fine art of knitting. Jean McLeish reports

They take education very seriously in Inverurie. So when teachers at Kellands School decided pupils should learn about sheep, the children went to market to buy some with their own money.

The nearby market at Thainstone is one of the biggest in Europe, and as P5 pupils began bidding against some of the hardest-nosed farmers in Aberdeenshire, the tension started to get to them. "It was scary at first, not knowing what the farmers would bid," says 10-year-old Emma Wilson.

"We were against a really good farmer, but we got them for pound;36 each," says classmate Kether Savage triumphantly.

The children are now the proud owners of three ewes they have named Baaabs, Snoopy and Jess and have set up their own company, The Sheep School. Each pupil has invested pound;2 for a share in the business and they all now have impressive job titles.

"Enterprise is about business, so our enterprise project is a business," explains accounts assistant Harris Williamson, 9.

Their teacher, Graeme Mollison, takes the spirit of enterprise seriously, so the children had to apply for the jobs and compete against each other at interview. He cooked up the Sheep School idea with his pal Colin Slessor, the auctioneer at Thainstone who keeps a few sheep of his own as a hobby and agreed to become agricultural adviser to the business. Mr Mollison also acknowledges the role of Mrs Mollison during extra-curricular brainstorming at the kitchen table.

Mr Slessor has agreed to keep the sheep with his own small flock at his home in lovely Aberdeenshire countryside near Castle Fraser, a few miles from the primary school. Today, the shareholders are in their best wellies to come and cast an eye over their investment, an important job since all three ewes are about to produce lambs.

The lambing season is already under way, so this morning the children are in Mr Slessor's byre inspecting his newborn lambs and looking forward to their own new arrivals with great excitement. If the lambs arrive in the middle of the night, he has agreed to film the event so they don't miss out on any of the gory detail.

In the meantime, he is giving them an antenatal class and answering probably more questions than he would like to about the birthing experience. But he doesn't take the coward's way out and say "ask your mum".

"A lot of ewes will take just an hour to have two lambs, so if they lamb through the night then you guys are not going to see that," he explains, while the children gaze at two tiny black lambs cowering near their mother.

"But if, by any chance, there was one lambing through the day and I could contact Mr Mollison, some of you could maybe come and see them being born. Sometimes the mother will need a human to assist her to lamb."

"How?" a gruff voice interrupts from the front. Mr Slessor continues, undaunted: "Because quite often the lambs will come with just the head, no legs, the legs are back, and in that position they probably won't be able to lamb. So what you have to do - and I quite often do it myself - you have to wash your hands properly, you've got some lubricant gel there, you put your hand inside the ewe, you push the head back and then you would find the legs. Take the legs up carefully and then take up both legs and the head at the same time and pull out the lamb," he tells them.

He picks up a lamb from another pen to show them: "This one's father cost pound;5,000. It's a pedigree Beltex, which originated from Holland." A collective "wow!" echoes round the byre. The Sheep School accountants are making notes.

But farming isn't all about cute lambs and rams as expensive as small cars. Primary 5 are also learning some of the harder economic facts about rearing livestock and whether their enterprise project can be profitable.

Mr Slessor spells it out: "It's very common that the ewe has two lambs, she can have three, maybe even four, but very rarely, and there are quite a lot of single lambs. If all three ewes just had one lamb, then it might be difficult to make a good profit. Or if one was maybe to have a dead lamb, God forbid, we don't want that but it does happen. We've got to hope we have two of them with two each and the other one with one."

Ten-year-old Kether Savage is the company's marketing and publicity assistant and explains their strategy, which places animal welfare high on the business agenda and makes no mention of the slaughter word.

"We are away to get them lambed and then we are away to sell them for money," she explains sweetly. "But not for meat, just for lambing and breeding them. We're going to keep some of the lambs and keep them going.

"We are not going to eat them. We are going to keep them and make them happy," Kether says, embracing the world of public relations like a true professional.

There are 32 pupils in P5, so this is the first time this group has visited their small flock since they purchased them at the mart. They have lots of questions about their care.

Emma Wilson is one of the company photographers who records The Sheep School's progress for newsletters for other investors. "This is my first time here. They are very cute," she says, perched on one of Mr Slessor's bales, nursing a young lamb.

"We are going to be shearing the sheep and knitting with their wool," she adds. Emma doesn't eat lamb and admits she doesn't know how to knit yet.

Her friend Erin Fowlis, 9, says they are also seeking outside investors for the business. "We got some sponsors for money and Imogen's mum offered us pound;100 and we got that and there are some other sponsors as well."

As the new lambs suckle, the children want to know why the ewes take such an interest in checking them out, and Mr Slessor explains: "The mother will sniff around the tails of the lamb to check that it actually is her lamb. If there are a lot of lambs in the field, another lamb might come along and try and steal milk off her. She can tell by the smell that it is her lamb."

But the shrewd P5 investors want the full picture and someone asks: "What happens if it's not her lamb?" Mr Slessor says it will get nosed out of the way. "She won't hurt it but she will chase it away."

He's sparing none of the detail of animal welfare and holds up one of the black lambs to demonstrate why it's important to keep the umbilical cord clean. "They can get infection through the navel. What you've got to do is get that umbilical cord dried up as quickly as possible, so there is no dirt going into the lamb. We spray on this iodine and it helps to dry it up very quickly," he tells them.

Away from this rural idyll, Mr Mollison is teaching back in Inverurie and when the group returns with their classroom assistant he makes a point of supervising the hand washing. "A lot of them don't get the opportunity to ever visit a farm and I thought it would be good for them to combine the business with a bit of farming," he explains, as he scrutinises hands.

His friendship with auctioneer Colin Slessor, who is sheep sales manager at Thainstone, helped streamline the process, although Mr Mollison insists the class had to take part in open competition at the mart. "It is an open auction, so we couldn't fix it. In the worst case scenario, somebody would have bid against us and beaten us. But we got them for pound;36 each. They were so excited; we had said we would go to pound;40.

"We wrote letters to sponsors and, amazingly, we got back pound;200 from our different sponsors and we have another two or three people very interested in helping too.

"This goes across all the curriculum. What we are doing is making it the central theme of our enterprise project. Today, we are writing newspaper articles on The Sheep School. So there's been lots of writing work, imaginative writing and letter writing to sponsors."

As a public relations exercise, the children are sending sponsors photographs of their livestock investment along with newsletters giving progress updates during the farming year.

"We had a guest last week to talk to them about farming in general," says Mr Mollison. "We are getting someone else to come in and show the kids more about sheep farming through to the plate, because they do have to be told what happens to some of these sheep - that they do get slaughtered - although we are purely for sheep breeding and will sell the lambs."

Although this is a rural area, most of the children come from the town. But farming is one of the major industries here, so it's very important that they know about it.

"A group went out and was feeding the sheep last time and Colin was showing them how to do nail clipping," he explains. "And obviously we are going to be doing the lambing, so we are hoping to take video footage of that, providing it's not in the middle of the night.

"We're also going to be shearing them and then doing things like the dipping. They will basically be involved in the whole process and getting as much hands-on experience as they can, because active learning is the way they learn," says Mr Mollison, who is spending his Easter holidays learning to knit.

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