James May

Autobaaahn sheep illustration

Raising the baa

This month, I have acquired a cat. He’s a black and white tom, eight weeks old, and I have named him Fusker in memory of the late Bob Cook, father of my childhood friend Robert Cook. He was a man who hated cats.

In fact he would refer to any cat as ‘a little fusker’ and it’s only now I realise that he was probably just sparing Mrs Cook’s blushes. But it’s too late. He answers to Fusker, I love him, and he loves me.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to turn into one of those pathetic pussy-whipped blokes who says, “Ha, ha, it was ever so funny the other day with Fusker he climbed onto my desk and jumped onto the computer keybolrddgdfgk lsdkfj l sdf k sdfsldfkjjjjjjj and I said look Fusker there’s a mouse and he chased it, ha, ha, ha, and I lost everything!”

In any case, I seem to have come by the world’s least intelligent moggie. Traditionally they like radiators and patches of warmth on the tiled floor where the sunlight slants through a window, but the other day – it was ever so funny – I opened the fridge to get another beer and found I’d shut him in it! And he was purring!

In the end, even the most ardent cat fancier has to admit that they just aren’t very bright. They have become the stuff of superstition, various cultures have attributed mystical powers to them, and the ancient Egyptians went as far as to turn a cat into a deity. My own experience, however, suggests that the cat understands only two things – the peerless pleasure of a fresh dollop of Whiskas, and the pain of being trodden on following a mistimed lunge at an approaching booted foot.

Mind you, compared with some of the sheep I have met recently, Fusker is Magnus ruddy Magnusson.

I’ve been meeting a lot of sheep, because I’ve been driving in Scotland and Wales. I thought I liked them. They’re decorative and scenic; they wander, lonely, around the hills and vales like the clouds of the earth. At the risk of being misunderstood, the pedigree sheep of Scotland and Wales are quite handsome brutes.

There are obvious downsides to being a sheep: it must be pretty boring and people keep nicking your coat. But, in many ways, life must be utterly idyllic. There’s no work to do, you fear no natural predators, and when you eat grass and live in the Brecon Beacons the whole world is your lunch. The equivalent for me would be if every street in London was carpeted with plates of egg and chips.

“A sheep, standing in front of a V8 muscle car is like turning up to a jousting tournament in a cardigan”

So I have to ask why so many of them, even now, are standing in the middle of the A4067 between Defynnog and Abercraf. I’ve tried to work out, using my knowledge of geometry, what percentage of this region of Wales, by area, is road rather than grass. But it’s so small I’ve given up. Proportionally, it’s smaller than that irritating bit of lemon grass in a Thai curry.

Standing in the middle of the road really is idiotic behaviour even by the standards of the beasts of the fields, and especially when I’m enjoying the new Vauxhall Monaro VXR. As a sheep, standing in front of one-and-a-half tons of V8 muscle car is a bit like turning up to a jousting tournament in a cardigan.

The Monaro is actually an Australian car, which is strangely relevant as the Aussies have a similar problem with kangaroos. But at least a road-kill kangaroo can be made into what the manager of a Nullabor roadhouse once described to me as a ‘pie-flavoured pie’.

Sheep are unbelievably thick, and when you examine one closely you can see why. They appear to be quite big but, as with Richard Hammond’s poodle, there isn’t actually very much animal inside that big ball of fluff. And even then, this surprisingly small creature has a disproportionately small head, and hence brain (I once ate a sheep’s brain in the Middle East, and I have to say I came away still hungry). Hammond’s poodle is merely difficult to shoot at, but a sheep is dangerously witless.

It’s not as if they skip about in the road or scamper away in terror. They just sit there looking sheepish as you bear down on them. But if you stop and get out of the car, they run like hell. What does this tell us?

Clearly, we need to deal with the sheep menace, because it’s spoiling some of the best driving roads in Britain. So I rang the RSPCA, probably the most powerful organisation in the country, to see what they were going to do about it. The phone was answered by a computer which said ‘Press one to report a stray animal’, but as I was still in Wales I could see that becoming boring.

Eventually, I got through to a preventionist, and her first recommendation was the erection of more fencing. Brilliant. We’ve never even devised a means of keeping the Scots and the Welsh in, so I can’t see us getting very far with their livestock. And here’s something else that might surprise animal lovers – according to the RSPCA, there is ‘no scientific evidence’ that those ultra-sonic animal alarm things work. All they mean is that the last thought to pass through the mind of a hedgehog is ‘what’s that irritating whining noise?’

Apparently, your typical Welsh or Scottish sheep is ‘hefted’, that is, free to roam. “They know where they’re supposed to be,” said my contact. “They know where the good grazing is and tend to stay there.”

Well, this is patently untrue. They hide behind rocks in groups and say, “Get ready lads – here comes one now”, before leaping out in front of the big Vozza just as I’ve snicked it into fourth. I can’t stand it. The sheer gormlessness of their faces is putting me off my driving.

The solution is simple. I stopped and spoke to a shepherd in Scotland and he told me that sheep farming is now a completely pointless exercise, with whole fleeces fetching prices that he expressed in pence. So why bother? Get rid of the woolly wastes of space. This is confirmation of something I have suspected for a very long time – that the countryside is not for living  in, it’s just for driving through and admiring.

We can get lamb chops from New Zealand.


James May, Column

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