A morning with the shepherdess

By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot (the writer farms in Huron County)

It was the cutest little Iamb snow white with a black nose. Irresistible. So I turned into the farm lane way and drove to the house. It was a neat and tidy place, with work jeans flapping on the clothes line.

Camera in hand, I rang on the doorbell intending to ask permission to photograph the little lambs doffing the green pasture alongside the road. I rang the doorbell. No answer I knocked No answer. Thinking no one home, I turned back towards the van when I saw a lissom blond woman calling from the barn. "Hi," I said, feeling a little awkward. There’s always those moments of discomfiture when you meet someone for the first tine, especially when you are barging in their territory without a specific invite.

However, the woman walking toward me had a smile on her face. We introduced ourselves and I learned her name was Catherine Laxton but she preferred to be called ‘Cat’. I explained my case and asked her if she had tine to come to the field so I could take pictures of her with the sheep. She said something about looking “like this” and “with no sleep” but all I saw was an attractive lady with an enviable lithe figure looking comfortable in work jeans and a white t-shirt.

She agreed to be photographed and I spent several happy minutes snapping shots with my Nikon while she tempted the young ewes with corn. All the while, she was giving orders to an agile Border Collie that was desperately eager to be ‘working’ the sheep. Quick, agile and responsive, the dog was literally shaking with anticipation at the commands coming from her master.

It was almost midday, which usually isn’t the best time for picture taking; the sun is generally too bright and casts too many shadows. It was too bright but there was a haze in the air that softened the sheep portraits. A wildly patterned Leopard Appaloosa in the next pasture got a little excited by all the action and managed to get into a few shots.

Catherine (Cat) Laxton checks on her lambs as
a leopard Appaloosa frolics in the background

The lambs were absolutely adorable. Some were completely white. I think she called them ‘mule lambs’ but I’m not familiar with sheep terminology so I’d better check that out. Some were white with spotted face, or had black faces, or (my favourite) white faced with a black nose. The ewes looked bored until the corn pail arrived. Then they balanced their great woolly bodies on their spindly little legs and trotted after Cat like so many peons following a celebrity.

Cat had a shepherd’s crook with her which she used to capture the quick little lambs. Once caught, she would pick them up to get a feel for whether they'd have enough to drink, Then she'd check their bums to make sure they weren’t “bunged up” and gave a quick look at their navels to make sure they were dry and healthy.

I got a lot of funny shots of Cat in awkward poses as she tried to capture the little beggars are they ever quick but I discarded those after having a good laugh.

I could have taken pictures all morning but I had my little girls with me and the corn pail was empty. It was time to ask some questions. I discovered that Cat her husband and their two grown children used to live in Britain’s hill country where she bred and trained Border Collies, worked as a contract shepherdess and farmed her own sheep. “Do you really call yourself a shepherdess?” I asked, thinking the title went perfectly with her lovely accent. Yes, she did.

Six years ago, the family moved to a small farm outside of Londesboro and she began to recreate her former occupation, minus the hills and wet climates, while her husband worked full-time off the farm.

In Britain, it was common to cross hardy hill breeds with milk breeds and she is experimenting with a three-way cross here to breed hardy, prolific, maternal, milky sheep. To do this, she is crossing a Rideau ram to a Scottish Blackface and then crossing these offspring to Suffolks. The Ridean breed is particularly known for its prolificness. “The most we’ve had from a Rideau was seven live lambs,” says Cat “She raised four with extra feed and I bottle fed the spare lambs.”

Cat has 44 ewes at present and since they are all lambing now, she’s had very little sleep. Seven ewes had been born that morning. She is also a breeder and trainer of Border Collies and takes care of the farm’s small cow calf operation. I had more questions and I could have listened to her English accent all day, but sensing this was a woman who had a full day of work still ahead of her, I knew it was time to leave.

The ewes were laying down now with their twins crowded close beside them. I got my own two little girls strapped into the van and we drove away feeling blessed by the whole encounter.

Ontario Farmer Tuesday, May 6, 2008