Did you hear something rustling?

I have no idea why my previous post was re-sent to subscribers today, and can only think it was some hiccup of the system. I wasn’t even at my desk at the time, so truly don’t know what caused that (which is a bit worrying). I can only apologize for the intrusion, and hope you enjoy the next post.

What's white and puffy, lives outside and might fall prey to rustlers? Read on --

The surprise snowstorms of early December left people stranded and caused enough accidents that emergency services in the UK had to work at top capacity. At the height of the problem, one young woman called the UK emergency number: 999—like the US 911, except you only need one key. You might already have heard the tape on YouTube, but for those who don’t want to bother (even though hearing it is probably funnier), here’s a transcript:

Young woman caller: “Hello, I need the police, please.”

999 operator: “Okay. What’s happening?”

“Well, what happened was, is there’s been a theft from outside my house?”

“Okay. When did this occur?”

“Well, I’m not sure exactly, ’cause I ain’t been out to check on him for about five hours? I went out about five minutes ago to have a fag—and he’s gone. So it could be in the last five hours, but I know there’s CCTV up this road.” [It helps to know that a fag means a cigarette.]

999: “Who’s gone, sorry?”

“My snowman.”

“Right. Your snowman’s been stolen.”


“Right. Okay. In the last five hours.”

“Well, four to five hours. I can’t be sure exactly.”

“What do you mean? What–a snowman actually made out of snow or an ornament?”

“No, he’s made out of snow. I made him myself.”

“Right. Okay.”

“It had two of my teaspoons as his arms, and money on his face—I’m not being funny, I know it’s only a snowman, but I thought he’d be fine, what with it being icy and that, people ain’t been walking up and down the road. It ain’t a nice road, but at the end of the day you don’t expect somebody to nick your snowman, d’you know what I mean?”

Yes, the woman was completely clueless and I laughed as hard as anybody else. Yes, she clogged up the line when someone else with a real emergency might have needed it, so I tut-tutted along with my neighbors. It’s legitimately funny and she is undoubtedly ignorant about what 999 is for—though perhaps not as ignorant as the American lady who called 911 to report that McDonald’s was out of McNuggets but wouldn’t give her money back—but then again the £1 coins that the woman used for the snowman’s eyes would be a small loss to me, while she apparently lives in a pretty hardscrabble place where the loss of two quid and a couple of spoons might be no small thing.

Times are hard, so hard that there are other kinds of white, puffy things left outside in the snow that are being stolen, too: sheep.

View from the bedroom window of the house we once rented at the other end of the village, where our neighbors across the lane were sheep

Sheep rustling is on the rise as life imitates art, if you think Nick Park’s animated film A Close Shave qualifies as art, and I do. His characters Wallace and Grommit are joined by Shaun the sheep (Shaun-shorn: get it?) for an adventure involving a gang of thieves stealing whole flocks out of the fields and turning them into dog food.

Stolen British sheep aren’t being turned into pet food at the moment, but into people food. The price of lamb has soared for a tangle of reasons from drought in New Zealand to the value of the euro, and thefts are on the rise.

Sheep along the Llangollen canal

There’s always been a bit of sheep stealing here—a Google search turns up a steady stream of reports—but until recently farmers were only losing a few animals at a time, maybe ten on a bad day. Sheep are disappearing in fifties and hundreds now and, in one case near Oswaldtwistle, a flock of 271 were spirited away overnight.

If the gloriously ornate word Oswaldtwistle (pronounced Ozzeltwizzel, by the way) isn’t entertaining enough, it may amuse you to hear that the pasture where that flock was last seen is named Ramsbottom Field. (With the British love of puns, I’m surprised not to have seen stories with the headline “Sheep May Safely Graze”, but then again maybe nobody listens to Bach these days.)

Sheep seen from a narrowboat on the Pontcysyllte aquaduct through the arches of what I think to be a railway bridge, 127 feet above the Dee Valley

Then after I’ve had my fun with the words—well, I find it great fun, you may have more of a life—trying out the unfamiliar Anglo-Saxon collection of syllables in Oswaldtwistle and chuckling at the puns in Ramsbottom, then I have to come back down to earth and remember that real farmers are out real money.

And prices for consumers, already high, are going to rise further as a result of the thefts—except for those who buy the cheap meat from stolen flocks. In some cases, audacious thieves are butchering the lambs in the field and taking the meat away. Also, black market meat isn’t necessarily good for you: some of the larger flocks taken are known to have been recently exposed to medications good for their health but not for ours, and those animals shouldn’t have entered the food chain for a specified period after being treated; even if the thieves know that, does anybody think they’d care?

The farmers are out more than the cost of the sheep on the hoof, too. These animals are the result of decades of husbandry, so the farmers lose not only the market value of the sheep they can’t now sell, but the breeding stock; the biggest loss is the years and years of patient effort that brought into being the flock that they’ve lost overnight.

Welsh sheep, looking remarkably similar to English sheep

So it’s a real problem, and not something, perhaps, that I ought to be making light of, or comparing to an animated video for kids—er, that is, children—but it’s awfully hard not to. If, like me, you aren’t a sheep farmer, chances are that the your only experience of flocks of sheep is in cartoons or storybooks, or if you live near sheep country, a vague impression of white shapes you drive past in the car.

Which is why a ludicrous image comes to mind that I can’t resist adding to the story: maybe if the farmers made snowsheep, with teaspoon legs and pound-coin eyes, the rustlers might take those instead.



Filed under Current events

4 responses to “Did you hear something rustling?

  1. So glad to hear the latest on sheep rustling. (GREAT header, by the way, MEF!) You make it SO much more interesting than The Washington Post did. 🙂

  2. Hester Higton

    My old neighbour is a sheep farmer but they seem to have been spared this so far. Just dealing instead with having to have their whole herd tested for TB because one cow showed two indicators of the disease (but post mortem found her to be clear, so go figure). It’s always a tough life being in animal husbandry.

    By the way, I’m afraid ‘Sheep may safely graze’ is by Bach not Handel. 😉

  3. Hester Higton

    Of course, on the Handel theme, you could have suggested headlines about how the sheep ‘had gone astray’, but I expect that would have been found even more obscure, despite the popularity of the ‘Messiah’.

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