“Ewe Gotta Be Kidding!”
Personal notes on sheep and goats by a foreign wife
By Lois Cemal….
Mentioning sheep and goats for a minister’s daughter (like me) brings back memories of past sermons I’ve heard of the good and meek on the right and the wicked and less deserving on the left hand of God. While a white woolly lamb represents Christ in stained glass windows, Satan’s name on the other hand concocts up images of a horned and cloven-hoofed beast, half goat half man. Living in Cyprus in a traditional rural village setting I have learned a bit more why the biblical authors chose these two animal symbols to so vividly represent good and evil.
My initial impressions upon arriving on the island in l986 were of pastoral scenes of dust coloured flocks roaming along the dry hills and amid the olive groves, or blocking traffic as they crossed the road while an old shepherd on a donkey sauntered ahead. Seeing them even from afar made me rush for my camera and to listen to the tinny sounds of their neck bells clanking in off-key harmony. This bucolic scene was out of the past, probably unchanged in thousands of years. It was like I was witnessing history.
Some obvious differences about sheep and goats in Cyprus are the long tails on the first and the even longer ears on the other. Coming to the Mediterranean from Australia and having had a few visits to a sheep station I learned about the de-tailing process for lambs that Australian farmers employ to protect their animals from horrific maggot infestation of blow flies. My two and four year old children had grown up knowing sheep to have no tails; so here, at last, the nursery rhyme that ended with the lost sheep “dragging their tails behind them” finally made sense to them. One variety in Cyprus introduced from Turkey has a round fat short tail while the more traditional Cypriot breed has a tail that nearly touches the ground in young lambs.
The local goats with the long ears are called Nubian or Damascus goats and according to Cypriots, the longer the ear the purer the breed. Their long ears act like air conditioners, cooling the blood on hot sunny days and allow the animal to cope with very high temperatures. These stately beasts have large eyes like glass marbles that range from blue and almost white to honey and dark brown in colour with a black rectangular sideways pupil which allows them very wide angled vision. Large arched roman noses give them an air of aristocracy and here again, the bigger the arch the purer the breed. Traditionally adapted to the hot dry thorny Mediterranean scrub land, they graze widely and destructively, nipping the tender shoots and tips as they roam. Local laws exist from colonial times stating that goats must be on tether at all times and closely watched when out in the fields.
If you ask shepherds, most would say that sheep are much easier to keep than goats. Sheep seem to think little and move as one unit, whether they’re grazing, huddling together with their heads down in the heat of the day or settled into the mandra for the night. Goats, however, are the greatest escape artists and are absolute devils at getting the forbidden fruit should they get the slightest chance. Able to stand on their hind legs to reach 6-7 feet high, they pull down branches to get at choice leaves. Take a look at the flatly cropped underside of most olive trees and you would think a gardener was employed with a trimmer. Let a goat loose in the garden for a few minutes and the results are devastating, as I have found out more than once. The saying goes that what the goat bites doesn’t grow again. I can list a plum tree, a pear and several loquat trees and grapevines that have been lost in this way.
In winter and early spring young lambs can be bought to be raised by the brave and willing-hearted. Several day-old wobbly legged sweet little things have joined our household, much to the joy of my children until they learned that they had to be bottle fed 3 times a day for 3 months. Like most pets, the lambs got left for mother to look after and they would follow me around like puppies, annoyingly nuzzling at my knees looking for the milk bottle. Needless to say, the novelty soon wore off, but I’m glad I had done it. One little lamb grew up to provide me with the wool I needed to weave my living room curtains.
Despite all the horrible things said about them I fell in love more with goats than sheep. They don’t have that heavy lanolin smell and however novel the long fat tails are, these tails are very obstructive when trying to milk. For me, stress goes out the window when a tame Nubian comes forward to get a scratch on her head, nuzzling with soft velvet lips at buttons or tags, pulling at my clothes to look for the treats of bread or carob pods that I like to spoil her with. However, one must never forget that familiarity and play with these beasts has to be tempered with the knowledge that they can bite and butt. Although they only have bottom teeth at the front of their mouths, goats have nasty grinding molars at the back powered by strong jaw muscles that can crush a finger-thick branch. This I learned on a very young kid (fortunately) that while sucking on my finger manipulated it with his tongue to the back on his mouth and clamped down. Ouch!
Young goat kids, especially the males, instinctively lower their heads and stiffen their necks when you approach them or put your hand out to touch them. My children used to mimic the action and kid and child would waltz around the mandra head to head. This dipping action of the head develops into butting and a male reaching sexual maturity can get quite aggressive in his play, rising up on his legs to impact a sharp cracking nutter onto another playmate. I recall seeing a news item on TV once about a buck that repeatedly returned a soccer ball thrown by his owner.
My first goat was called Matilda. Despite the solemn promises of the lady I got her from, she was neither young nor a great milker. Yet what I learned from Matilda, plus several goat owner friends and a book from the British Council Library, helped me launch my career as a goatherd for the next 15 years. I learned that goats are very fussy about their food, always sniffing it before they bite. They would refuse feed and water that was anyway contaminated or dirtied by other animals. Social creatures, goats like company and bleat long and loud in protest at being tied or left alone. They have very good hearing too for the minute they hear the creak of the back door they start their complaining, bleating for food and attention.
Milking, which is done from the back, was one of the hardest skills I’ve had to teach my hands. Apart from dodging the rain of pellets that seem to be purposely saved for when the milking bucket gets in place, it took many months before I mastered squeezing anything substantial out of their fleshy udders. Strangely enough, my left hand got the hang of it first and I managed one handed until the right was able to catch up. It was like I needed to create new neural pathways in my brain.
All my skills as a midwife have been called into play in dealing with my goats. They have a 5 month gestation period and most often have two or three offspring. Rutting starts in August-September with most birthing taking place in the early Spring, during which time they need close observation. Matilda’s first pregnancy ended with a prolonged labor due to a stillbirth obstructing the delivery of the second twin, which subsequently died. The local government vets have proved very helpful and have come whenever called to treat my goats over the years for any number of infections, skin disorders, worms, broken horns and long toenails. I’ve even had to rely on my husband’s strong hands to help with difficult deliveries.
Once I had a total of 8 goats in the mandra, then situated up under the mulberry tree. My children, each armed with a shepherd’s stick, would help me take them out to graze in the fields, walking with my neighbour and her goats, for some of the most happy and memorable times I can recall. We would share stories and discuss the goats, finding figs and wild pears to eat while the animals nibbled on fragrant myrtle and sinya bushes as well as the left-over barley grains in the stubble of the fields. Milk was pooled between us so that first I, then she, would have a decent amount to make hellim cheese. We became like sisters.
Although I’ve had the occasional ewe and have raised a few lambs, over the years goats have remained my favorite. “Helen”, “Mouffy”, “Rose”, “Gita” and many others have fulfilled my need to care for someone as my children left home. The goats live down the backyard now in their mandra next to the chicken run, currently reduced to just 2 maturing kids. The drought last year forced me to put an end to the little dairy I had going because we had total crop failure, no barley or even straw. This year I buy milk from other goat-herders and make hellim and my special parmesan-type cheese which I dry in the traditional way, in a stocking tied to the rafters on the back porch! Yummy!
Even if goats symbolically sit on the left hand of God I am thankful to these challenging beasts for keeping me busy and active, for all the milk and meat they provided my family with over the years and for those valuable lessons learned about village life, about neighbourly friendship and the need for caring and sharing with other living things.
Lois Cemal, a Canadian, has been married to her Turkish Cypriot husband for 37 years and they have 3 children together. For the last 27 years she has raised her family in a village in the Karpaz, the panhandle of Cyprus, keeping goats and chickens, baking bread and making cheese and learning much about Cypriot traditions and culture
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