Friday, September 7, 2007

Yo-Ho-Ho and a... Bucket of Skulls?

When you dream about someday owning a farm, you picture yourself picking fresh tomatoes from your garden, collecting eggs from your own chickens, maybe helping a curly, wet lamb stand up for the first time.

You don't picture yourself trudging up the hill on a hot September morning, lugging a bunch of skulls in a bucket like some bizarre and gruesome lunch box!

Even more odd, my task was complicated by the fact that I had to go through something akin to a pirate's treasure hunt to find my grisly plunder: Follow the line of trees down the hill, go so many paces past the path, and enter the woods at this particular gap in the wall of cedars.

That's where we keep the cage full of heads.

Yes, that's right. We keep a cage full of ram's heads hidden in the woods near the edge of our pasture. Gross, huh? Let me explain.

Each year, a few of our rams get sent to slaughter. The meat goes in our freezer in neat white packages. The hides and heads come back to us in a bloody cardboard box. The hides I salt for future tanning. The heads get stashed someplace far away (and down wind!) from the house until the insects eat all the flesh off the skulls.

We picked a spot down in the woods, near the edge of the pasture, as being far enough away but still easily accessible. We didn't want foxes, skunks, and raccoons to drag the heads off and destroy them, so we bought one of those rectangular wire rabbit cages to keep them in. That keeps the larger scavengers at bay while still allowing free access to the insects.

Once the bugs have cleaned the skulls, the outer horn material will slide right off the inner bone core. I clean the horns and sell them on my sheep web site. They can be used for a lot of different craft projects, including handles and buttons. The skulls, once cleaned up, make interesting rustic decorations.

I'd gotten an email from someone interested in buying some horns, so today was the day to go gather up my harvest of heads and take photos to show the potential buyer.

It's one more small bit of income for the farm, and one more way of honoring the gifts of the sheep that go to slaughter, by making use of as much of their body as possible.

In that way, even the rams that did not grow up to be exceptional enough to use as breeding animals can still make their contribution towards supporting the rest of the flock.

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