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NATURE Lord of the rams

Outdoor Living

Blackface Ram

Lord of the rams

The battle for supremacy among rams is more nuanced, and more brutal, than you may realise

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

The sheep had been in this particular field rather longer than was good for them or for the short, grubby green sward that barely covered the ground beneath their sharply pointed feet. They looked miserably at one another, while a black-faced, curly horned ram with a rough and ragged coat ran in short circles, pausing only long enough to butt one or another in the side or flank. Only recently introduced to his harem, his excited passions have removed any trace of gentility that might normally adorn his character.
Another ram stood the other side of a wire fence, looking on in silence. This one had neither black face or curly horn, nor the feverish delirium exhibited by the former. He was, in fact, one of what some still consider to be ‘new’ breeds, a Charollais, a Frenchman nonetheless, with a broad forehead and tidy fleece and a newly pregnant flock grazing contentedly behind him. Monsieur Charollais regarded his neighbour calmly. If the two of them became engaged in a confrontation I wonder which would prevail?
A fight between two rams is something to behold. Hostilities are not entered into immediately, but the two introduce themselves with much posturing and not a little huff and puff. They might stand, noses to each other’s ears, declaring threats and intentions, these being reinforced by much stamping and swelling of the chest. Then comes an almost casual sweep of the head to catch the other on the side of the neck. The pair even walk awhile, side by side, to see if matters can be sort out amicably, over a quiet conversation. They cannot.
There comes a point when both, by mutual consent, turn to face each other. One looks at the sky, lost in his own thought, perhaps; the other gazes idly over his companion’s shoulder to the trees at the top of the field. A forefoot draws a slow line in the turf and the artist’s nose goes down to inspect his work. The other animal feigns disinterest and even chews an imaginary cud to show how free of care he really is.
One walks slowly forward, slightly stiff-kneed, and pushes his head hard against that of his rival. Now they mean business. They slowly and deliberately back off from one another, pause, and then with a short run come together with a resounding clunk. Both seem surprised and look on with astonishment.
‘Didn’t that hurt? Well it should have done, and if it didn’t then this one surely will!’
They back away again and come together a good deal more firmly, skull upon skull. ‘Kerrlunk!’
Such an impact ought surely render one or the other senseless. It does not. Rams one and two regard each other dispassionately from amber, slit-windowed eyes. Again and again they clatter heads and horns with determined resolution. A fight that begins at first light may last until lunchtime before one decides that enough is enough and turns away. He might have another go later in the week, but once mastery of the flock is attained it will take a supreme effort to dislodge the victor from his place.
Ram’s heads were made for fighting. They are stout, thick and strong, and adorned with stout horns. The brains are small and well cushioned within that bony carapace. They can take it.
The ewes care little about proceedings. They nibble about their pasture, totally unconcerned until, one afternoon, one finds the victor at her side. He seems a little intimidating up close, so she strolls across to join her friends and does her best to lose herself in the flock. The ram, of course, is not to be put off easily. She trots away with him at her heels and when she stops he belts her in the side with the full weight of that powerful head so that her hind feet leave the ground altogether.
The ram’s idea of courtship, we may say, lacks decorum, and the practicalities of the moment soon come to the fore.
In five months’ time the first of his progeny will start to appear and we shall be looking on at a new season, with longer days and a soft wind blowing up from the south. The rams will be the best of friends, retired together to hilly ground where they can gather strength. Meanwhile we remain concerned with their offspring. Lambs born in May will be destined for next year’s Christmas market, but already we see newborns on the low fields; these will be finding their way to our table before we know it, giving measure to the year. We see, too, the odd green twist in the hedgerow.