With my 70th AND a family Christmas looming, I can’t help but envy the blissful solitude once enjoyed by Fiona the sheep...
MUSING this week about Fiona the sheep, who was rescued after being stranded for two years at the foot of cliffs in the Scottish Highlands, I found myself in two minds about her plight.
As a voracious carnivore, I enjoy nothing more than a succulent lamb chop or mutton stew. So I suppose it wouldn’t break my heart to see Fiona or her offspring led off to the slaughterhouse and served up with mint sauce for my dinner.
How, then, can I explain why I felt such a deep pang of sympathy for the poor creature, as I thought about her two years of loneliness?
And why did my eyes mist over with joy when I read about her rescue by Cammy Wilson, an Ayrshire sheep- shearer and presenter of the BBC’s Landward programme, and his five-man team who risked their lives for her?
The answer, of course, is that there’s nothing incompatible between enjoying meat and caring strongly about the welfare of animals.
I also know, because we’re constantly being told by animal behaviourists, that it is wrong to attribute human thoughts and feelings to dumb beasts.
Mind you, many of us do it all the time. I hasten to say I’m not yet quite as bad as my otherwise brilliantly level-headed late father, who (I blush for his ghost) took in his later years to writing whimsy letters to the newspapers in the name of my mother’s favourite cat.
But I confess that I’ve been known to attribute political views to Minnie, our beloved Jack Russell/dachshund cross, saying things such as ‘she’s an incorrigible Corbynista, you realise’, or claiming her support in the occasional dispute with Mrs U: ‘Minnie much prefers the blue curtain material, darling’; or ‘Minnie thinks I need one more glass of wine’.
I appreciate, however, that we simply can’t know for sure what was going through Fiona’s mind as she chewed the grass and sheltered in her cave during all those months of her isolation on the shore of that Highland firth.
Not very much, I suspect.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped countless people from telling us they know exactly how she thinks and feels about everything.
Some say that because sheep are herd animals, she must have been utterly miserable, separated for all that time from her flock. Others insist she was happy enough where she was, before she had to suffer the traumatic brouhaha that has attended her rescue and return to society.
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, are furious about the decision to move her 300 miles south to her new, ‘forever home’ at Dalscone Farm park, near Dumfries, where fans have checked in on her more than 3 million times via the farm’s webcam. (I’m assuming they’re right in thinking they’re looking at Fiona, although to my untutored townie eye, most sheep of her breed look much the same.)
Says Jamie Moyes, from Animal Rising, whose members sought to disrupt a number of horse races earlier this year: ‘Petting zoos are stressful, inappropriate environments for most animals, not least one who has been neglected and isolated for the last two years.’
His group of eccentrics has been demonstrating at Dalscone, holding placards reading ‘Free Fiona’, ‘Sanctuary Not Spectacle’ and ‘ From Isolation to Exploitation.’ They say she should be moved to an animal sanctuary, well away from the public glare.
On the other side of the argument, a spokesman for the farm insists that Fiona will have five- star treatment at Dalscone, where she will have ‘ some amazing friends’.
‘The farm park’s closed for the winter, for the next five months,’ he says, ‘so she’s got loads of time to settle in. Nobody’s going to be bugging her. We’ll just get to know her, let her do her own thing.’
As for where I stand in the great debate, I should admit at once that I don’t know the first thing about sheep psychology. All I will say, for the little that it’s worth, is that to me Fiona has seemed pretty laidback throughout everything fate has thrown at her.
Her rescuers testify she displayed not the slightest concern or anxiety during her dramatic ordeal, even as she was winched up that giddying cliffside. To judge by the film footage, nor did she seem much troubled by the extraordinary length of her fleece, after two years of uninterrupted growth.
For that matter, she didn’t seem to mind, either, when she was given that radical haircut after her rescue.
Indeed, throughout everything that has happened to her — the isolation and the blaze of publicity alike — she has maintained her passive, inscrutable expression, defying any attempt by mere humans to read her mind.
Yes, I suppose she may have been miserable in her solitude, and may now be delighted to be back among her fellow creatures. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it possible that she was content, alone on her private beach.
After all, she had as much grass and fresh water as she could wish for, all to herself. So much did she have to eat, in fact, that the human obesity Stasi have now said she needs to be put on a diet, whether she likes it or not.
What’s more, the surrounding cliffs kept her free from predators, while her inaccessibility to our own species protected her from the culinary fate that has befallen so many of her kind, to the accompaniment of the aforementioned mint sauce.
Meanwhile — who knows? — she may have valued her solitude for its own sake, free as it left her from the trials of family life and the pressure to fall in with the flock.
Indeed, at this time of year a part of me rather envies Fiona her existence over the past two years, with everything she needed and nobody to think about but herself. I write with some feeling, since I have not one, but two huge family gatherings coming up over the next few weeks.
First will come my 70th birthday, at the end of this month, and the pressure is already mounting, with my near and dear ringing constantly to ask how I want to celebrate.
The simple answer is that I don’t. I’d rather spend the morning walking the dog, as usual, with perhaps a pint or two at the pub before my afternoon nap in front of Pointless or The Chase. Then a bottle or two in the evening, to help me forget that I’m 70, with perhaps a Fiona pasanda from the Indian takeaway and a film on the telly before bed.
But my family are having none of it, insisting that we have a huge get-together, whether I like it or not.
So it looks as if I’m condemned to a day of yapping dogs and wailing infants, while I’ll be confined to the garden most of the time, because I’m banned from smoking in my own house when the grandchildren are around.
Then, of course, there will be the nightmare of a family Christmas, and we’ll have to go through the whole thing again.
There will be the inevitable annual disaster — whether gravy all over the floor, a tablecloth ignited by the Christmas pud or, as happened one year, the kitchen ankle-deep in water, when a pipe chose to burst on December 25.
Meanwhile, feelings will run ever higher, as every new bottle is drained, with old sibling grievances revived, fiercely competitive board games and rows about everything from the Middle East to the proper place to house Fiona the sheep.
Call me an old curmudgeon, but which of us wouldn’t rather spend Christmas curled up in an inaccessible cave and an extra-warm fleece, on the banks of a Highland firth?