Yesterday our friends Priscilla and Rupert from Lancashire (the ones who showed us Pendle Hill earlier in the summer) visited to accompany us on one of our local Yorkshire walks. They have a smallholding (an idyllic place) and keep chickens, geese and sheep. The conversation turned to ram harnesses. They’ve just bought a shearling ram to service their eight ewes.
Rupert had spent Friday afternoon trying to get the ram harness on, but without success. It wasn’t that the ram was being obstreperous: named Terence the Tup, he’s as docile, Rupert says, as rams come. The problem was that the harness, which is an elaborate contraption made up of multiple straps and clips, came with no instructions. Not only was it almost impossible to put on, but Terence several times managed to step calmly out of it as soon as their backs were turned. Priscilla said that Rupert was a typical man in not wanting to ask for help (I suggested that he called the NFU, but he frowned that that would be totally demeaning), so we compromised by looking up ‘fitting ram harnesses’ online.
It seems that Rupert is not alone in experiencing this difficulty: there are farmers’ forums that devote many pages to harness complaints, mostly without providing the answers and, even when they do, they’re about as comprehensible as the instructions from a Scandinavian flat-pack. One respondent even said, just look for the mud marks on the ewe – it’s cheaper! I should have explained that the purpose of the harness, which is fitted with a coloured crayon, is to let the farmer know when the ram has mated. When the ram mounts the ewe, the crayon leaves a mark which shows that the deed has been completed; so sophisticated is this method that there are soft, medium and hard crayons, according to the number of ewes; soft doesn’t sound much good. As the same effect can be achieved simply by daubing the ram daily with raddle paint (red ochre powder mixed with a little cooking oil, apparently!), it’s impossible not to believe that whoever invented these devices was having a laugh. The harnesses seem to have caught on, however: at this time of year, masochistic sheep farmers may be observed across the countryside, struggling with their own bucolic version of Rubik’s cube.
Chuckling over our conversation again this morning, I wondered what Friday afternoon’s episode looked like from Terence’s point of view?
I knew when I saw Rupert’s place it’d be a good billet. He’d sorted me with eight wives, a nice number for a harem, and it means I get them all to myself. I’m not so keen on the bigger gigs where I’d have to share a twohundredsome with some other blokes. It’s not that I’m anti-social, just that team ramming tends to encourage inappropriate equipment and performance comparisons and it’s definitely dodgy to find an old tup leering sideways around the manger to measure you up. There’s one such ram in particular I can’t abide: his name is Fuchsia (What kind of a name is that for a straight fella?). My name is Terence the Tup, so you can imagine what people call him.
Another reason that I’m keen on coming to Rupert’s is that he strikes me as a sensible chap. Like me, he’s a bit lugubrious, but underneath we both have a wicked sense of humour. I credited him at first with quite a lot of common sense, too, because he played a tight game of it at the auction; when he got me home, he turned me right out with the girls and didn’t bother with one of those ridiculous harnesses that I’ve seen used elsewhere. I was a bit surprised, therefore, when I’d no sooner got comfy in his field last Friday and was just beginning to have a sniff round the ladies when I saw him approaching, brandishing one of those things. Baaaaaaa, I thought. Last time I had a close encounter with one of these, being fitted on a friend of mine, it made me blush to see a self-respecting ram looking like a bondage freak. But the straps were all over the shop and the air was blue, I’m not exaggerating. ‘Mister,’ I bleated at the farmer, ‘kindly remember that there are ladies present.’ But he was too cross to listen.
Anyway, since it was Rupert and obviously not a man with a chicken’s brain, I decided to co-operate, at least up to a point. Wasn’t there an old fella called Gandhi who invented something called ‘passive resistance’? Very effective, I’ve always thought. So I just stood there, chewing on a piece of turnip to alleviate the boredom, while Rupert endeavoured to truss me up.
The first time, he put it on upside down. I didn’t let on, of course, but it wasn’t very bright of him. For one thing, the crayon was squashed up against my brisket, pointing inwards, whereas a lamb could see that it’s meant to face outwards, to put some colour on to the lady. He soon realised that it was wrong and had another go. This time he ended up with two straps spare: those two are supposed to be crossed over my shoulders, but again I didn’t say. Would you help a chap if he was trying to push you into a strait-jacket?
Then the real fun and games started. Priscilla and Rupert have a dog. She’s a sleek black little thing and a bit of a minx, but friendly enough. She’s not one of those rogue dogs that chase sheep. Classie, I think her name is. Anyway, she showed up at this point and, for some reason best known to himself, Rupert decided to have a practice on her.
Catching her was something else. Once he’d finally got her in his grip she squirmed and wriggled while Rupert tried to hold her down with one hand and stick the harness on her with the other. Why he thought this would help was beyond me. Eventually, she ran off with the harness dangling and with Rupert in pursuit. I just stood and chewed my turnip.
Priscilla came out then to catch the dog. She put its lead on and tied it to the fence. Rupert was back with me by this time and beckoned Priscilla over. I must admit that I was slightly bemused when he asked her to kneel down on the grass and started clipping the straps in various permutations on her. But I’m broad-minded: ‘Whatever turns you on,’ I thought.
They must have come up with some new ideas by doing this, because Priscilla stood up and came across to hold me while Rupert had another go on me. By Larry, he was sweating. ‘I think that’s right, now,’ he said, ‘but it probably needs to be tighter.’ Shucks, I thought, he’s getting the hang of it. ‘Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him!’ Priscilla said, sweetly panicky. I smirked. Rupert tightened the straps a little, but gingerly. He slapped me on my rump and I walked forward a few paces, nonchalantly displaying the harness as I went. ‘I think that’s done the trick,’ said Rupert, and they both went into the house.
I walked over to the far side of the field, where most of my ladies had gathered, and stepped out of the bloody thing. I gave it a well-aimed kick. I didn’t quite manage to flip it into the ditch, but I trampled it down into the mud. Put yourself in my position: wearing that’s like having someone peeping through the keyhole of your bedroom door every night.
As I ambled towards my ladies, I had a look through a gap in the hedge and glimpsed Fuchsia in the next field with some ladies of his own. I met his eye and wondered why he was looking so sheepish: he’s usually a cocky so-and-so. Then I realised: he’d got a harness on and he’d been trussed into it good and proper. Seeing him like that made my day, I can tell you; he looked a right flower.