Lambs to the Slaughter

By Sharon Gray

I can hear Dad now, screaming: “Why do they put them in holy pictures when they’re so stupid!”  The sheep prop on slim legs, heads down, ready to rush a gap in the yards. Ooof! Another boot into woolly guts and I wince; me, the timid one. 

The iconic lamb chop had me remembering the horrors of sheep farming. Flocking on a green hill, slumped dustily under a scraggy gum, toddling along their clever little paths – it looks good in the distance. Up close, it’s all torture.

I grew up on a farm, where much work was saved until school holidays (leaving aside what crows do to soft eyes, noses and mouths in lambing paddocks) then comes marking.

Snip go the shears, slicing a wedge out of an ear – left for girls, right for boys. See the bright blood spurt, see the dogs snap up the treat.

“They’ll be sh*tting blankets!”

I would only inoculate, from a pack tied to my arm, pinching a fold of skin and jabbing the big needle between.

Off they ran, shaking their ears, falling on their pretty knees with the shock of those tight, tight green rings on tail and testicles, and shouting for mummy. But they were eating contentedly soon enough – at least, it looked contented.

I knew a man who bit the testicles, a barbaric and inefficient practice, leaving a purse, vulnerable during shearing.

At crutching, we tore the hard dags off the wool, bagging them for sale. Everyone knows dag money is the kids’ money. Dags aren’t the problem.

On finewool ewes (girls), urine trickles into the folds of skin, where flies seek it out. I still shudder at the memory of fly-struck sheep being eaten alive by fat maggots.

Mulesing cuts away a circle of skin around the rear, the raw, bleeding flesh hardening into a fly-resistant scar. We never did that equally horrific practice at home, because we never ran finewools. Wethers (boys) wee from below their body, so mulesing doesn’t apply to them. Pizzle rot is not so common and quickly fixed with antibiotics.

Footrot is the worst. Cutting through soft, necrotic flesh, spurting blood trickling warm over my hands, maggots rushing like a river. How far do you cut back. Don’t ask.

Then pushed into a stinging footbath to stagger bloodily out to the yard again, expressionless as ever. After all that, the swift knife across the throat bent tightly back is a kiss.

I saw bloat treated once – a steel cannula thrust expertly through the skin and stomach wall and whoosh! A gas-powered plume of liquid shot across the shed.

No, chops do not get born on meat trays, and all creatures suffer.

I don’t believe reports from Norway insisting that crayfish feel nothing when boiled alive, likewise worms pierced through for bait.

British research indicates sheep remember up to 50 sheep faces and some humans, and appear to experience complex thoughts and emotions.

So eat your next chop slowly, and with some respect.

Reproduced from The Age newspaper (Melbourne), 18 March 2005: Metro.