Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ostriches and Drambuie

Ostriches weigh about 28 stones, can run at 43 mph, and stand 10 feet tall. At five feet four inches, it never occurred to me that I would ever look one in the eye....
That hot July day in the heart of rural Aberdeenshire I found myself staring deep into the beadiest of beady eyes. I didn’t even see or hear her approaching. There I was, on all fours pinning down an abnormally hirsute and unwilling sheep when I just sensed this enormous presence. A small head, a beak, and those beady eyes were right up close and personal. Then I allowed my eyes to take in the whole scene – the snake-like neck, the feathery black body and long powerful legs ending with huge flat prehistoric feet. She would have looked like an alien anywhere, but in sleepy Aberdeenshire she brought a great flapping whirlwind of the surreal. With a touch of the absurd.
I wasn’t sure what to do – not that I had much choice – after spending an hour in the baking heat just catching the wayward sheep in order to sheer them, if I moved at all the big bundle of wool would have run off half done. I looked into the beady little orbs and my eyes said ‘I'll give you my sheep when you take it from my cold, dead hands’ the ostrich’s eyes said ‘EH???’. Not a lot of brain room in that little skull. An awful lot of muscle on those lanky legs. Then a passing butterfly caught her attention and she was off galumphing after that…
Later, I sat bolt upright on the overstuffed, ancient sofa, cradling the huge egg under my arm while balancing a glass of Drambuie in one hand and a plate of apple pie in the other. I watched without the least surprise as a clucking mother hen strode confidently over my feet followed by twenty (yes twenty) small chicks. She headed straight for the kitchen where she and the little fluffy hoard began hungrily tucking into a large bowl of cat food.
Nothing would have surprised me by this stage. I had arrived at the small croft a couple of hours earlier – knowing only that two sheep needed shearing urgently. It was a hot day in July, and having been on some sheep shearing courses run by the British Wool Board, I was gaining some experience by going around some of the smaller farms which only had a few sheep. The big shearing outfits only go to farms where there are many sheep, making it worth their time to travel and set up.
There may have only been two sheep to shear – but what sheep! It must have been at least 2 years since they had been shorn. Big woolly balls of panting defiance they had certainly given me the run around before eventually succumbing to the inevitable. They were also huge, even underneath the massive fleece, so instead of doing the carefully choreographed dance – balancing, rolling and immobilising the sheep, I had no choice but to just pin them down on their side, shave, roll over and shave again...It’s very hard, sweaty, smelly work, so I was happy to accept the offer of a sit down inside with a drink. It’s usually tea, but I was handed a generous beaker of Drambuie and an apple pie. Once refreshed, the farmer, a man of few words, led me into a shed. It was a day for looking up. He gestured at the ceiling beams from which were hanging hundreds of shepherd’s crooks – most were painted bright colours, some were bare and varnished wood, but one was shiny all metal. He invited me to choose one. I took the metal one – it was all one piece and would never break. I knew I would never forget this day...off I toddled , carefully picking my way through the chicks running around the floor, clutching the biggest egg in the world and an indestructible crook. I waved cheerily at the ostrich which was standing dreamily with the sheep in the corner of the field, all three staring into space generating an unrivalled air of mystery....

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