Elegy for an Old Ram
A good death for an old friend
While unaccustomed to digging graves, I knew the digging was just too easy for New Hampshire. I dug a five foot deep by four foot square hole in an hour and collected only a modest cairn of fist-sized stones. Beside the mound of fresh earth at the edge of the newly-opened grave lay the best damned ram ever.
When Gregory died of old age he was eleven. He was the patriarch of our small farm flock of Romney sheep, a sire to a dozen lambs born on our farm and more after we studded him out to a farm in Gilmanton.
Gregory was a holy terror in his prime. He tore holes through wire fences, bent galvanized steel gates, shattered reinforcing wooden pallets and ignored single strand electric fence to reach autumn ewes in estrus. He painfully broke my left pinkie finger seemingly just for fun by tossing a sideways head butt at my outstretched hand while he was walking beside me on a lead line. His resume of not-so-affectionate nicknames ran from “Butthead” to “Stink” and just “Old Buck.”
During his stint as a stud ram in Gilmanton, the shepherd called in November and asked to keep him a few more weeks fearing he’d somehow failed to breed her ewes right off. She called back a few weeks later and begged me to come get him, confessing she’d assumed that he’d eventually leave her ewes alone once they were bred. He didn’t, and he was home for Christmas.
When loose in our pasture, he’d run full tilt, pull his head back and rear-up at the moment of impact with victims of his ceaseless head-butting. I found him one morning with a forehead festooned with porcupine quills. We never found that hedgehog, but I doubt it ever visited the salt block again.
I once watched in slow motion horror as he butted a visiting friend square in her “posterior” just as she bent over to pick-up a tennis ball to throw for her dog. She didn’t know the ram was loose and never knew what hit her. She literally flew through the air. I still wish I’d stopped laughing as I helped her to her feet. Only her ego was bruised.
Shepherds have been killed by aggressive rams. An elderly couple in Maine were found dead in their ram pen, killed by a full-grown ram they’d raised like a pet. Our same mistake was cuddling Gregory when he was an adorable little black, wooly lamb. An affectionate ram lamb becomes dangerous ram when 200 pounds full-grown.
Gregory began to fail last summer. He never fully recovered after castration at age nine put an end to his central purpose in life and an end to spring lambing on our farm. In his dotage he grew lame, nearsighted and nearly deaf. He’d respond with a deep resonant bleating when I called him, and he’d wag the stump of his docked tail like a dog when I scratched his rump. Our shearer questioned my relationship with him.
Last summer, I promised him “just one more” fallen apple season. The sweet windfall MacIntoshes of September were his favorite treat. I kept him alive all last winter despite pleas from my family to call the farm veterinarian. I argued that the cold weather seemed to invigorate him. He preferred to sleep out on the snow rather than in the barn. And how would I ever bury him in frozen ground?
In spring when the shearer arrived, we left old Gregory un-shorn. His meager, dirty tangled fleece was more use to him than us. He’d wander off to a far corner of the pasture or cross our dirt road to graze alone. His lifelong mate, Matilda would bleat while searching for him at sundown with her last-born twins following until she fetched the old ram back to the barn.
More than once after watching him hobble through the dooryard, my wife asked, “When DO you plan to put old Gregory down?” Then she’d say: “I just wish one day we’d find him dead.”
And so it was.
On a rare hot evening in late summer, she found Gregory dead in his favorite place behind the barn.
The digging there in an ancient manure pile of the ancestral barn which preceded ours was too easy. Gregory died a neat death; good old ram.
However it is elsewhere, I’m pretty sure that for the past two hundred years in this small mountain hollow that cradles our farm, the death of a beloved animal has been met with stoicism and practicality - nothing left to do but dig a decent grave. We shoveled, laughed and cried. We swapped Gregory stories as he lay dead next to his grave.
Matilda has fared better through her years. Ewes seem to last longer. I imagine her re-measuring the inside of the barn for renovations or riding a charter bus with her friends on an excursion to Foxwoods once her twins leave.
The surviving sheep of the shrinking flock watched intently as we lowered old Gregory into the earth. We picked a weedy bouquet of Brown-eyed Susan and pink phlox from a perennial bed, rolled a headstone onto the grave and stood back to admire our work. A full moon rose in the southeast, followed by Jupiter. At last light, a Whip-poor-Will called from the woodlot, first one we’d heard since May.
As I patted down the grave and clanked my spade against a stone to dislodge the sticky clay, I cast a stern glance at the assembled sheep and muttered, “One down, three to go.” Amidst tears at the graveside, my son’s girlfriend chastised that callousness saying, “That’s a terrible thing to say! You’re so mean.”
“No,” I corrected. “I’m a farmer.”
Naturalist Dave Anderson is director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears every other week in the New Hampshire Sunday News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Forest Society website: forestsociety.org.