October 19, 2008

Daft Laddies – Buryin deed sheep

Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on.

By Clive Dalton and Donald Clegg

An extract from the book - Daft Laddies. Farming Tales of North Tyne and Rede 50 years on (2003) By Clive Dalton & Donald Clegg. If you would like a copy, contact donaldclegg@btopenworld.com

Photo: Dally Castle Fell

One of the first jobs a Daft Laddie had to larn on a North Tyne or Redesdale farm was to become a skilled undertaker and bury the dead. Yowes in the lambing field seemed to have a fatalistic outlook on life. It was often said by cynical heords that if an aad yowe decided te dee, nowt wad stop hor, nee mattor huw many patent remedies ye put doon hor neck!

Buryin’ the deed could almost be a full-time job in a bad lambing, as the boss, who did the bulk of the lambing, or the specialist hired lambin’ man, didn’t have time for such morbid chores. And there were very good reasons of hygiene why they should not touch owt deed incase of disease spread, especially septicaemia.

During the 1953/54 winter on one North Tyne farm, no less than 26 deed sheep were recovered after the thow, sheltering ahint dyke backs. They were collected by the laddie (DC) and brought doon from the hill to the bottom field in the trailer where a massive grave 10 feet square and 6 feet deep had to be howked to fit them aall in.

When I (CD) started work at Redesmouth Farm as a Daft Laddie I soon learned that burying an aad yowe was not just a case of howkin’ a hole and hoyin’ hor in. Nowt the kind, it soon became clear from the hind and my mentor, Jock Armstrong, that the whole business was almost an art form.

First off you had to survey where the old bitch had deid, because this dictated how easy a howk it would be. If she had given up the ghost in a rocky corner or, warse still, on top of an uncharted staene cundy, then you had to face the unenviable chore of having to move her – usually by dragging her to some spot where you could get doon at least a couple of feet for a decent howk.

If there were a few bodies to bury, then it could be worth considerin’ yokin’ the caert or tractor and trailer, and making for the river side where it was always a nice sandy howk. But that was a last resort, and burying the owld bitches where they deid with minimal disturbance was the best option.

Now the reason for this lack of desire to move a deed yowe, was because you had to ploat her wool which was sold separately from the clipped wool. Nowt had to be wasted – even in death. And to get hor to ploat easily, she was best left a couple of days, by which time of course she was getting rather “high”. She was ready when her skin was a nice blue/green colour and the wool came oot with a weak tug. So, minimal shifting was the aim.

When first surveying the death site, if you thowt it would be a canny dig, you always started digging so the prevailing wind blew the stink away from you – never howk in the lee of a deed yowe I soon learned.

First the overall hole area was marked oot and then carefully cut into small turfs within it with the precision of a golf course green keeper. Now it was important to lay these sods bye very carefully, as they had to go back in the precise same order. As a good layer of top soil could come oot attached to the sods and had to be retained, they were laid doon nice and canny.

Then oot came the next layer of soil to be laid aside separately, and finally, when you got doon into the clay subsoil, this had to be hoyed oot and kept separate again. All these layers had to be returned in the order they came oot – a very important point for restoration of “the environment” I can now appreciate. It seemed a lot of extra work at the time!

Now came the question over depth of the hole. The Daft Laddie’s natural desire was to dig as little as possible, and just “hap” the owld bitch ower in a shallow grave. Ah but, what aboot a hungry fox? Ne guid mekin’ it easy for Reynard’s missus with a litter o’ hungry cubs, to howk hor up again. So it was doon another foot if you could get it. The recommended depth was always a “shank deep”, i.e. almost the full length of the spade. But even in canny gannin’, ye usually struck trouble lang afore that.

Then came the problem of getting the owld bitch inte’ the hole. One muckle heave would dee that – but, then you realised she now completely filled the hole and more, because of her blown-up belly. So nuw whaat te dee? The options were to either lift hor oot and dig the hole deeper, or borst hor belly te let the gas oot. Both a grand prospect just afore bait time!

After some pondering, you had to be attracted by the second option. So after making a few abortive incision attempts with the spade, it became obvious that it was a pocket knife job from up close. You soon learned to synchronise your breathing with your stabbing to avoid the aroma that seemed to follow the knife directly up to your nostrils. So the drill was to keep your heed oot o’ the way when dein’ the stabbin’.

Once in the grave and every layer of returned soil nicely possed doon with your heels on top o’ hor, then came the job of laying the sods back in precisely the order they were removed. Follow that with a good bat doon with the spade and your heels, especially aroond the edges - not ower hard mind, as ye didn’t want to brek the spade shank . The boss wasn’t made o’ money remember!

Job done - then on to the next bereavement, trailing your bag o’ pulled woo’ and remembering not to put it over your showldor, especially if it was late in the day and near lowse. Aye! and remember not to cut that apple in your bait box with your pocket knife – or if you dee, offer the forst piece to the hind for showin ye huw te de the job right. And divvn’t use yor fingers to whistle the derg!

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