If you love somebody you have to let them go. Saying goodbye to Yoda.

As the day approaches my walks on the Ness take on a new melancholy. I see him every day. Sometimes he remains with his flock and watches me from a distance. Other days, like today, he bounds towards me, shaking his head in that peculiar way he has done since he was a lamb.

He sniffs, checking and double checking to see if I have brought him any sheep nuts. I scratch his cheek. He closes his eyes, chews the cud and rubs his head against my knee. Today he remains for just a few minutes before returning to his flock. Other days he may stay longer, following me to the beach where he stands close, eating seaweed and sometimes even lying down next to me as I sit, watching the coming and going of birds, seals and otters.

In a week, for a million boring practical reasons, I have to leave Whalsay. Thankfully I am only moving as far as the beautiful isle of Burra but as soon as people find out about the move, their first question is what will happen to Yoda?

Well, here is the thing. Yoda has several available options and as his owner I need to make that decision for him. He could move with me, the new house has grazing and there will be other sheep around. He could go to live a field full of contented caddies[1]. The final option, the one I have chosen, is for him to remain where he is, where he is happy and where one day he will become mutton.

When I tell people this the responses vary from confirmation that I have made the right choice to horror that I would allow the sheep I love so much to become meat. So let me try to explain.

When I got Yoda, a four day old abandoned lamb with big eyes, knobbly knees and lots of bounce, everybody warned me not to get attached. Of course I did, as they knew I would. All the warnings that caddies never become real sheep fell on deaf ears. I devoted much of that summer to trying to teach Yoda to become a sheep despite the fact he was terrified of the flock and had no idea how to act socially. Every day I walked him through the field with the flock that he would one day live with, watching them butt him and ignore him. Gradually they got used to his presence and became more tolerant of him. I brought food, bribing them with nuts so they would come close and stay with Yoda, until finally, he moved away from the gate and started to roam with the flock.

As I write my PhD thesis I am exploring the complex interplay between ideas of autonomy and control that are part of the ways pony breeders in Shetland understand the animals they work with. The majority of breeders place great importance on encouraging their ponies to be intelligent and independent. It is part of their duty as responsible breeders to listen to their ponies, learn to understand their preferences and respect their ability to think for themselves.  They feel that too many people living “sooth” [2] love their animals and treat them kindly but can inadvertently show them a lack of respect by underestimating their intelligence and infantilizing them.  To “overly-domesticate” them in this way may take care of their physical needs but at the expense of their mental well being and social development.  Although not cruel in a physical sense this lack of respect for an animal’s autonomy inhibits their natural behaviours and can preclude the possibility of a human-animal relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

In many ways this parallels with how I feel about Yoda. For him moving with me is not really an option as if I were to move from that house while Yoda was still alive I cannot be sure what would happen to him. Also the caddy fields does not seem appropriate. They all very well cared for and contented but I know that they “don’t speak sheep”.

Would it be fair to limit Yoda’s life in that way, even if it meant extending it? Could he be happy in a small square field when he currently has the freedom to wander across large stretches on hill and shore? Yoda learned to speak sheep but it took time. As I have watched him over the last year I have seen his behaviour change towards the flock and their actions towards him change in response. I see him rub cheeks and participate in mutual grooming. He engages in play fights and follows them to shelter behind the peat banks when the weather gets stormy. He is often with the same six sheep that frequently leave the main flock to go on their own adventures.  I feel proud of him when I think what he has accomplished. The little lost lamb who was terrified of sheep is now a fully integrated member of a flock. I can’t know for sure which of his future options he would choose but I do know he is healthy and happy and I do not want to take his hard won independence away from him.

Yoda still has several more years to live out on the Ness before his time comes, and I know in many ways he is a very lucky sheep. After all, as a boy lamb bred for the UK meat industry, had he not been abandoned by his mum and become a bottle fed pet, his time would have come in the autumn of his first year.

When it is his time I know exactly who will do the deed. I know they will be respectful and Yoda will not suffer. I also know that in many ways this is not death; it is the continuation of crofting life in this place. In autumn some of the ewes go to the ram and the older wethers[3] go to the freezer to make room for the new lambs that will arrive in spring. When Yoda’s time comes his flesh will feed families who have kept sheep in this land for generations. The flock and family will continue to live together, their lives entwined together in this rugged and beautiful land.

[1]  Caddy is the Shetland term for pet lamb. Yoda had  kind offers from several different people to live with their caddies.  My words about fields and options refers to an amalgamation of these various offers and does not refer to one particular person or flock of sheep.

[2] Sooth or South is a term used in Shetland to describe events or people on mainland UK

[3] Male sheep that has been castrated

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