When Roger and I met on that Russian Icebreaker in the Arctic, we spent a lovely evening watching Wallace and Gromit movies and sharing some popcorn. A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and, of course, A Close Shave, had us giggling at Nick Park’s brilliant Claymation stunts, gags and puns. Who knew that one day, we would find ourselves rescuing sheep, not with Porridge guns affixed to our side-car-come-helicopter, but instead with our own sheer strength and determination.
I’m still in the States as I write this, missing the daily activities of our lives at Crockern where each morning I am awakened by an exuberant Sam for his morning walk. We feed the chickens, fill the bird feeders, and uncover the vegetable garden from its frost-protecting fleece before setting out for the next 30 minutes. By the time we’ve returned, Roger has the coffee ready and the day is underway.
In A Close Shave, when Gromit is framed and sent to prison for sheep rustling, Wallace finds his house overrun with sheep. In our early days at Crockern, we too were over run by sheep in the yard. They would stare at us, chew the grass, poop everywhere and give the “Am I bothered?” expression when we tried to shoo them away. It was not uncommon to see thirty or more about the yard. The sheep were not worried about Sam as he ignored them. All the same, as if to assert its authority, one sheep sneaked up from behind and rammed Sam off balance as he carried on watching Roger feed the chickens. Before Sam could react the sheep quickly did a runner.
The track leading to our house is also a public footpath and all around us open moorland where both sheep and cattle graze. As a consequence passing walkers often stop by to report to us injured or distressed sheep. We are happy to tend to those sheep in the field if they need our help, but I’ll be damned if they are welcome in our yard. Sam has taken this on board and if he sees them within our walls, he shepherds them out! He never chases them when they are on the moors, and when walking amongst hundreds of sheep barely gives them a passing glance. But when they are in our yard the rules of engagement have changed. Sam lowers his body and stares at the sheep, awaiting our “okay” before running towards them, never biting, and only stopping his drive at the corner of the barn as the sheep make their escape over the walls, often knocking stones off as they go. He then prances back up to us with his tail held high seeking just praise for a job well done. His performance would receive perfect scores in the sheep dog trial challenges known as “the lift”.
Some dogs aren’t capable of such restraint and we’ve seen seriously injured sheep from dog attacks. It is awful and avoidable. Dogs who are not trained around wildlife and livestock can sometimes display their natural hunting instincts when the opportunity presents itself. Many people don’t have recall for their dogs, nor do they keep their dogs on lead in unfamiliar terrain. The assumption that “My dog is really friendly.” and so would never chase a sheep is misguided. In fact, The Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society has reported over 50 dog attacks so far in 2012, and 72 reported sheep deaths from dog attacks in 2011.
In our short tenure, we’ve rescued sheep from all sorts of misadventure. Let’s face it, sheep are fairly stupid animals and get themselves into trouble. For example, Sam and I stumbled across a lamb, its fleece sodden with water and mud from many days of rain, that had laid down to rest and become trapped in the grips of a gorse bush. I checked to make certain it was uninjured, then lifted it up and out from the bush, and was pleased to see it skip swiftly away and join up with its mother nearby.
On another day, Roger saved a lamb whose head inexplicably got stuck in a small but heavy metal table outside lying around the yard The table had a support bar on its frame, creating a four-inch gap between frame and the tabletop. Roger heard the sheep bleating and went outside to investigate. What he found was that the lamb’s head caught in that gap. The lamb would right itself and then tumble down the hill as the weight of the table took over. Roger was able to catch and hold the lamb, calming and keeping it still. How it didn’t break its neck with this table stuck on its head remains a mystery. When I went outside, all I could see was Roger crouched over something on the ground. Looking at me he asked, “Can you bring me a hacksaw?” A few days before a fox had taken one of our chickens, so I didn’t ask questions and instead headed to the barn and returned with all matter of tools: hacksaw, tree saw, and just in case, an ax.
I held the lamb firmly down but it became apparent there would be no prising its head from the table’s rigid construction. Roger took the hacksaw to the table leg but before beginning to cut, turned to me and asked what remains the oddest question given the circumstances, “Are you sure we don’t need this table?”
Among our many sheep saving interventions has been reporting the limping, the blind, the infected tick on the face, and the dead and dying sheep. We have called the farmer on each of these occasions, including our most recent predicament. She was unable to come out straight away, so Roger and I went to the rescue.
A twenty-minute walk onto the moors and up the hillside on the other side of a swollen river was a sheep trapped between the stonewall and the stock proof fencing. I had asked the farmer if we should just cut the fencing and she said, “No. We try to not do that. Instead, pull the fencing back and move the sheep.” Okay, plan to hand, but I was wishing we had a nifty Wallace and Gromit “Release-O-Matic” to aid our efforts.
Adult sheep weigh a lot (between 45 and 100 Kg). Add to that a soggy fleece and they weigh a whole lot more. We spotted the sheep and then had to cross the river to get to it. Roger took an approach that would have meant me swimming in the river, so I opted for a trickier, but shallow, bit of navigation. I crossed successfully then immediately misjudged a step and got a boot full of bog water. Heading over towards the sheep, I next tripped over a bundle of rusty barbed wire hidden in the brush. I fell flat on my face, cut my hand and was covered in mud and still had a soggy boot full of muck.
Undeterred, we knew that to free this particular ewe, we had to first free her shoulder. Roger held her head steady by the horns and I pushed her shoulder through the fencing. Her shoulder was now free, but she was unable to get purchase with her back legs and so remained stuck between the fence and the wall. Roger climbed up over the fence and squatted somewhat unsteadily on the wall in an attempt to pull the sheep up to freedom while I pushed from below. After three failed attempts, I joined Roger on the wall. As the two of us awkwardly leaned over, hoping to not fall off the stones, we gripped the sheep, took deep breaths “and on three…!” We managed to free the sheep and she ran off uninjured, immediately forgetting the entire event. My hand was now bleeding significantly.
A few years ago at the Sloane Club in London, Roger and I were having drinks with our friends Nitty, Steve and Joe. And who should join us at the table? T’was none other than Nitty’s friend Peter Sallis! I could barely contain my glee as the owner of the voice of Wallace was sharing a drink and telling us stories from his long career. I left that evening filled with an enhanced and abiding appreciation for the antics in every episode of Wallace and Gromit.
We may lack the obvious sight gags, film parodies and practical inventions, but we have had a few or our own close shaves. One morning as I was walking Sam, Roger drove all of the recycling and rubbish to the end of the track for pick up. In the ten seconds it took to drive through the open gate, over 50 previously unseen sheep sped through in a covert escape. Was this, perhaps, a cunningly organized rescue effort for a falsely accused Gromit held at Dartmoor Prison? Roger was standing in one spot directing those Houdini sheep toward a grassy bit of land away from the road. They had no intention of returning through the gate and more were continuing to stroll OUT of the gate. Sam and I went to the far side of the herd and Roger stood sentry by the gate. Together the three of us returned the sheep to the fields while they looked back contemptuously for having their escape plans spoiled.
I wonder, what Roger and Sam have had to confront in my absence?