My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?
Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?
There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.
The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.
First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.
Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.
Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.
Fourth: Place bucket under udders.
Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)
Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.
It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.
What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).
Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.
However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.
Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.
Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…