Saturday, 17 December 2011

Sheep Shearing Day

Wayne in action.
Today is sheep shearing day on Tristan.  Families work together to shear, dose and mark their sheep quota of two sheep (plus lambs) per person. Everyone helps out – grandparents, men, women, children - even visiting botanists.  It’s a family day out.  Men use hand shears in a deft operation that is made to look easy.  But judging where fleece stops and sheep starts is tricky.  Wisely, I was given the task of catching and holding sheep down and not shearing.  (Otherwise there would have been a lot of blood.)   Old men are on light duties such as operating gates. Grandmothers sit knitting in strategically parked bakkies watching events, while younger women supply tea and sandwiches.  Children play together and collie sheep dogs run around excitedly.   There is a lot of beer, banter and playing.
No mistaking this one!
One of the final tasks is to select sheep for slaughter to bring the flock size back into line with the family quota that includes all one year plus sheep – and increases with last year’s lambs.    This is essential to limit overgrazing of the island’s pasture – which is shared with 600 odd cattle and 14 donkeys.   The limiting factor is the availability of winter grazing as there is no supplementary feed available.   Thin soils, frequent storms and extensive salt spray make growing hay or silage difficult if not impossible, and the cost of importing fodder is prohibitive.   The only exception is that milking cows are given boiled potatoes as supplementary feed – otherwise there would be little milk and no cream.   By the way I get milk delivered to my fridge straight from Sylvia’s hand-milked cow.  The top two inches of cream is a breakfast highlight on my porridge or Tesco Frosties.  
Anyway I digress.  The over quota sheep have to be slaughtered before Easter.  And generally it is sheep that are slaughtered and not the lambs as mutton is considered much more flavoursome and killing growing lambs seems wasteful.   The traditional Christmas (and Easter) dinner is stuffed roast mutton which sounds really delicious.
Earlier in the week I went to the Tristan School Christmas Nativity play.  There was standing room only in the school hall as all 32 school kids performed to parents, families and friends. I counted 140 in the audience – about half the island’s entire population.  (Many others had seen a previous performance specially laid on for the island’s pensioners.)  It was an entertaining show. But I was thinking how difficult it must be to teach such a small number of kids of all ages.  After short speeches by the Head teacher and Sean the Administrator and a rendition of the National Anthem the audience repaired to the Albatross Bar.
I mentioned last time that the Island Store closes for a month at Christmas.  What I hadn’t appreciated is that absolutely everything closes over the Christmas holiday – including the Albatross.  I now understand why bakkies are so popular on the island – they are needed to get the Christmas food and drink shopping home!  Considering the average income is about £2000 a year I saw some big bills being rung up – like £140 - and that was probably only one instalment!   My Christmas shopping included a couple boxes of posh biscuits to give folk who have been particularly kind to me.  And a 2 foot artificial Christmas tree, complete with decorations and 20 lights - bargain at £4.

Last time I told you about a very exciting Christmas present arriving – a hard drive with loads of films.  Well it transpires that only part of the consignment arrived.  All were posted at the same time in the UK.  Sadly there is no sign of the other packages – one of which contained Christmas pudding apparently! I hope they arrive in January, but I’m told it can take up to a year... if ever!

Another milestone in Tristan history this week – the internet is speeded up from 32 to 64 kilobytes/sec – between all 280 islanders and shared with 12 voice-over-internet telephone channels.  So it’s still slow but not quite as slow!  
I had a haircut this week.  Not easy you might think in a place where the nearest barber is 1500 miles away!   So when one of the Conservation Team lads appeared one morning sporting a neat haircut I asked how he’d done it, and arranged for Kirsty, the office clerk to cut mine too.

I previously mentioned that it’s rare to see (or hear) jets over Tristan.  I learnt this week that there is actually a scheduled service which goes over twice a week from Cape Town to Buenos Aries. But its at altitude and not always visible or audible. 


  1. Hi Jim - sounds like an amazing experience you are having - cultural and botanical! I hope Christmas is good for you - especially with the lack of shopping. Mind you, the shops are pretty awful here at the moment, far too crowded. But perhaps you'll be looking forward to a few more people by the time you get back? Anyway, best of all seasonal wishes to you hope that stuffed mutton tastes as good as it sounds. Best wishes, Polly in Wales!

  2. Thank you Polly!
    Hope all is going well in Wales. I'll give a call in the NY.
    Best Wishes