Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Shearling Lamb

Have I mentioned that Bill has re-joined the Long Distance Walkers Association?  Given he would go off and do it anyhow, it did make sense to hook up with like-minded folks and have a bit of socialising now and again.  In addition to long walks they sometimes have meetings in pubs and he liked that idea, too.  Only he came home the other night with a big lump of lamb (a shoulder, actually), something I’ve never cooked.

He did know this was a possibility, given they would be addressed by someone about flexi-grazing, a form of nature conservation.  Apparently most lambs raised for food are born in spring.  They are one of the sights to see around here, but photos don’t do them justice.  You have to see them move.  They look so ridiculous the way they bounce around, as if on springs, one can’t help but laugh.  Cute or not, they get the ax at 14 weeks and are traditionally served with mint sauce, or so they say.  I’ve eaten lamb a number of times but never had mint sauce.  Then again, I’ve eaten beef quite a few times and never had chutney with it.  It’s a British thing that’s never grabbed my taste buds.

Anyhow, as Bill reported back, there is another batch of lambs born in September.  They are called shearling lambs and farmers don’t want them because they have to be fed over winter and they aren’t economically viable.  So they are given away.  This reminds me of one of my first trips to the Yorkshire Dales with Bill.  I remarked that all the sheep seemed to have been dabbed or sprayed with some colour of paint:  red, blue, green…  It was too consistent to have been accident or vandals.  He explained  it had to do with their breeding programme; the colour on the ewe indicated which ram she’d mated with and they could note which produced good outcomes.  He referred there after to the ‘sexy sheep’ which gave me one of my first insights into his quirky sense of humour.  [Apparently this is paint is called raddle.] But back to the shearlings.

Apparently farmers don’t like these shearling lambs so much  they give them away to the flexi-graze people who find places for the lambs to live and graze until they are two years old, when they get the ax and are sold for meat.  One doesn’t become mutton until 4 years of age.  (I’m sure there is a corollary for explaining ‘mutton dressed as lamb’.  Perhaps if one is twice as old as one’s 20 year old daughter one should tread cautiously?)  To my knowledge I’ve never eaten mutton, never even seen it for sale, not that I looked.  I’m not a tremendous fan of lamb to start with, but Bill’s story was still quite interesting and I’m certainly not going to waste an £8 lump of meat just because it’s not a t-bone steak. 

Anyhow, it turns out these shearling lambs – also Highland cows and Exmoor ponies, all hearty breeds that can over-winter outdoors without much help – are very useful to nature reserves and the like.  I remember when we had our last Foot and Mouth outbreak (don’t get me started on how idiotic British policy makers were about it – in every bloody state department) when there was concern that the wholesale slaughter of so much livestock would alter the overall appearance of Britain’s countryside.  All those lovely green patchwork fields outlined with stone walls or hedgerows aren’t maintained with Flymo’s or John Deere’s, but by cattle and sheep.

The flexi-graze people have found a way to be the go-between, as I understand it, between farmers who don’t want sheep and nature reserves who need some but it’s not their main business, they just need the grass controlled.  Areas of special scientific interest, nature reserves,  need a way to manage the grasslands to stop the spread of things like heather, stock, birch trees, etc that would encroach on grasslands being managed for the purpose of encouraging wild flowers, insects or birds.  Britain has plenty of woodland and wetland but not so much grassland.  Unmanaged grass will kill off wild flowers (perhaps dandelions aren’t of interest to conservationists).  Unmanaged grassland grows trees, something my renters in Oklahoma City haven’t always understood…

Just as British men love to talk about maps and routes and know every post box and tree branch landmark there is, apparently conservation grazers feel the same about their animals.  Bill must have mentioned we will be helping to marshal a marathon on Druridge Bay this month (I shall definitely take my camera), as the speaker warned us about the Exmoor pony they have placed there. 

He’s very affable and affectionate and will be your best friend if you feed him, unless you stop before he’s ready to stop, in which case he’ll kick you, so don’t start.  I don’t offer food to animals anyhow, not liking the idea of putting my fingers in proximity to teeth or beaks, but it’s good to be warned.

Another gem of info shared over a pint was that some clever chap invented some really good medicine for treating animals for blow fly.  I’ll let you google that if you wish but read Thornbirds - or about any other bodice ripper set in Australia - and you’ll know more about blow fly than you care to.  Anyhow this great invention was a tablet which resulted in long slow release of the insecticide and obviated the need for frequent external treatment.  Only the poison remained in the faeces, which in a nature reserve is useful for encouraging insects, which lay their larvae in such places, and it wasn’t specific only to blow fly, so it wasn’t such a clever thing for the conservationists.  Tricky business, that, eh? 

I just wonder whether Bill bought the lamb shoulder before or after the blow fly story.  Never mind, thankfully least he passed up the half a lamb for £65, good price though it no doubt was.

So, what would you do with a shoulder of lamb?

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