The saying around these parts is that if one chooses to have livestock, sooner or later one will inevitably also have dead stock. Nevertheless, I did not anticipate actually having to confront the issue for some time yet, since the oldest member of my flock is only three years old. So, when Jasper, one of the Wenslydale twins I had bought from the set of quints born on Carole Foster’s farm, started to first show signs of being in trouble, I thought there would be time and opportunity enough to nurse him back to good health.
After all, Jasper was the true bellwether of the flock, even though it’s Auggie who wears the actual bell. Shy and skittish when he first arrived, he came into his own by the first winter at the farm: the first in line for everything from getting out of the barn, to getting to grain and hay. By this winter, his second, I looked to him to get the rest of the flock moving, and he did not disappoint.
One Friday morning about three weeks ago, I noticed that Jasper tarried in the barn long after the others had hustled off to the pasture hayrack. He made his way out eventually, and seemed his normal bossy self, shoving the lambs out of his way and leading the flock up to their “office” among the rocks at the very top of the winter pasture. That evening, he was the first back into the barn, and I allowed myself to feel relieved: after all, even sheep have “off” days.
Saturday followed the same pattern – a slow start and then back to normal. It was a lovely winter day: brilliant blue skies and nothing but sunshine. The flock went about their normal routines of feeding, and finding comfortable places to sunbathe and ruminate until evening when the barn door was opened again. That evening, Jasper did join the flock in their mad dash back inside for the night. He remained immovable on his rock, until Bowie and I were able to persuade him to get up and get moving. He seemed a bit shaky, but there were no other signs of trouble – no fever, no bleeding, no difficulty in breathing. I called the vet, and felt a bit reassured when she felt her visit could wait until the morning.
Late in the evening, Jasper began to tremble wildly. I held him as best as I could; the flock and Bowie gathering around and watching quietly, until he was still again.
Jasper’s sudden illness, it turns out, was copper poisoning. The vet had surmised this when she performed the necropsy here in the barn, which was both diagnostic as well as instructive – I learned as much as I will ever know about the structure of a sheep’s digestive tract and how copper poisoning affects it. Further tests revealed that the batch of grain I doled out to the flock had higher traces of copper than normal; dear Jasper’s propensity for being greedy at the trough proved to be his undoing.
The weeks after were consumed with worry for the rest of the flock, who had been similarly exposed. So far, so good. I still walk into the barn every morning expecting to hear the sound of Jasper’s impatience. And I still expect to feel him sidle up for a chin scratch the moment I sit down for a visit or pause in the pasture. I expect I always will.