Hay-bringers of doom
Big Brother and a busman’s holiday to Sweden
It’s elimination weekend in Swedish Big Brother’s sheep shed.
The ewes and the ram-lambs are taking some time apart – the girls in the field, the boys in the shed.
And it’s in the shed where the contestants have been a little confused this week by the strange behaviour of big brother’s hay bringers: the high-visibility, large, wool-less upright sheep who deliver them food and water every day.
Some of the ram-lambs had been selected by big brother for a haircut.
“Hay Shawn, what’s with the trim?”
“Dunno Lars,” Shawn bleated, “I got lured into this metal lift thing by a bucket of barley and next thing my coat was gone.”
So what the flock? Or what, the flock of ram-lambs thought, did this all mean?
To be honest they probably didn’t think that much at all because they are quite stupid (and didn’t even recognise Shawn after his trim and started headbutting him)…but stay with me.
It turns out their feeders and shearers were actually hay-bringers of doom…
We’ve taken a busman’s holiday to the Swedish farm in Varberg this week to see Ana’s mum Gertrud and step-dad Christer who inspired our decision to move to the country and go off-grid.
Having missed Gertrud’s 70th birthday last year because of the pandemic, we managed to keep the trip a secret and to successfully surprise her midweek at her kitchen table courtesy of crafty Christer and brothers sneaky Sven and evasive Eric.
With our generous neighbour Daniel taking charge of Simon and Garfunkel we made our first flight in 15 months and headed to northern Europe.
But our first and biggest surprise was the total lack of masks anywhere in Sweden.
On the train, in the supermarket, in the bank…pretty much anywhere.
Sweden has taken a very different, hands-off approach to the pandemic and with the exception of the occasional lockdown here and there, life has pretty much gone on as normal with “advice” to keep your distance.
There have been periodic international media reflections on Sweden’s approach to the pandemic on a spectrum from “see, you don’t need to wear a mask” to “they’re trying to kill all their old people” (there’s actually a word for that in Swedish: ättestupa).
I saw this recent New York Times article on how Sweden has fared in the pandemic and it shows that the jury is still out – it could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse.
Some headlines on Sweden from the New York Times:
“Is Sweden Doing It Right?” (April 2020)
“Sweden Tries Out a New Status: Pariah State” (June 2020)
“Sweden Has Become the World’s Cautionary Tale” (July 2020)
It has taken some getting used, to the whole “this is how it used to be before the pandemic” feeling, but it has been great to be back at Rya farm, even if it’s perhaps a little chilly to swim in the lake and everything is very green (for a reason).
And so began the fabulous daily ritual of sheep feeding with hay, and human feeding with amazing home-baked bread, metric tonnes of home grown beans and squashes in a farmhouse full of nephews and nieces.
We found and ate some amazing mushrooms, made a fire in the field without worrying about bushfires and picked red kidney beans, yellow raspberries and have been eyeing up the green artichokes since we got here.
Our last trip was more than two years ago when we had a rough plan to move to Portugal, and so back then I had paid a lot more attention to what Christer was doing.
He has a lot of toys: quad bikes, tractors, ploughs, and extravagant tools for cutting, chopping and grinding.
In unit 1 (introductory self-sustainability) we did a little plumbing, chainsaw usage, firewood splitting, fence posting, electric fence wiring and general vegetable growing.
This time in unit 2 (intermediate ‘oh that’s how you do it’) there’s advanced chainsaw sharpening, introductory sheep shearing, welding…and questions on all the things I didn’t even know I needed to know in unit 1.
I can’t wait for unit 3 when they come to see us in the Spring.
And no, we’re not getting sheep…it’s far too much like hard work…and haven’t we got enough to do?
A little over ten years ago Gertrud was a GP and Christer was a mathematician and computer science lecturer in Västerås in the east of Sweden when they moved to Varberg on the west coast to become famers as they “retired.”
In one swift move they went from a suburban garden to a 30 hectare farm complete with pasture, arable land, sheds and farm buildings, a forest and a lake in the rural backwaters south of Gothenburg.
Some retirement: over that decade we’ve been visiting and have watched them transform poor land into totally organic fields of barley and rye and heaving plots of fruit and vegetables.
With the help of neighbours they’re repaired an ancient water mill on their land and have used it to demonstrate how to mill grain the old-fashioned way.
It’s been inspiring to watch them power through their sixties getting stronger, fitter and healthier.
(Perhaps there’s hope for us yet, we pondered, as we took a similar plunge in Portugal).
And of course they went from no sheep to a personal best peak sheep of 74.
And speaking of peak sheep, this is transition time…back to those hay-bringers of doom.
The basic guideline is you don’t shear sheep that are “going away” to see the butcher (if only they knew they’d be queuing up for a trim).
Ten of the ram-lambs had been shorn and 11 had not, but with only 10 spots available for the journey out in a van and back in a vacuum pack, one stay of execution was up for grabs.
Apart from a lucky couple that could be sold for breeding, most of the rams will eventually make that journey, but those surviving this week’s elimination were underweight after heavy rain meant the grass they were loading up on was mostly water.
I’d like to say it was Lars who got to stay, but I’m not sure, as you don’t name sheep you’re going to eat.
We learned that early on after petting Gunnar one summer and then eating him the next: there’s a big difference between saying “this lamb is lovely” and “Gunnar tastes really nice.”
They live good lives here – great food, lots of pampering and then a surprise trip they don’t come back from.
Gertrud says you can taste a sheep was stressed in its meat and their customers notice that theirs lived a laid back life.
As Medronho Jorge from our valley puts it while talking about his porco preto (black pigs): “they have 364 wonderful days and one really bad one.”
Above all it’s a wonderful opportunity to stand back and think about what we’ve achieved so far, where our priorities lie…and to take a bit of a break while Carlos plays in our lake and Daniel spoils our dogs.