Sunday, 8 April 2012

Roast Mutton, anyone?

Last Tuesday was an ‘all hands day’ on Tristan. All able bodied men are expected to help with the annual sheep round-up.  Even visiting botanists!  I volunteered to help Nicky, Barry, Barny, Derek and Kevin.  First, men and dogs round up the entire settlement plain flock.  All 1,000 ewes, lambs and rams. (A few hundred sheep live wild on the Base and are not included.)  The sheep are corralled into pens near the potato patches. 

Then they are separated into family flocks.  No easy task when you have 1,000 sheep to select from!  But Nicky’s sheep are relatively easy to identify with very distinctive bright orange and black lines right around the sheep.  See the photo in the Sheep Shearing Day blog back in December.  But Kevin’s paint has faded faster and his sheep are harder to spot.  Though spotting does become easier amongst the dwindling collective flock – but not the catching!  After much noise, bustle and banter the job is done. We’ve got our 28 sheep. Time for a cool beer!

Then Neil, Head of Agriculture, comes round to inspect the flock and apply the quota. Every person is allowed two sheep, including children and extended family members.  Those sheep that are over quota must be culled to prevent overgrazing of the limited pasture. The rest can be released, after a quick shear if they missed out in spring, and after being re-marked.  I help with both tasks.  I’d never sheared a sheep before despite being brought up on a farm.  The main problem is to know where the wool stops and the sheep starts. I err on the side of caution; and the sheep is left with a long haircut and only a few bloody nicks. If a sheep could be thankful it probably was - as winter approaches and now is not the time for a short back and sides!

Another (slightly less) cool beer and a slice of excellent home-made pizza.  Then we truss the feet of the twelve sheep to be culled and load them into the bakki (pick-up truck) and head off to a quiet spot beside the potato patches for culling.  Lambs are never selected for slaughter – it is always sheep.  Islanders think – unlike in the UK - that it would be wasteful to cull animals which aren’t fully grown.  And, in any case, mutton is much tastier than lamb.  But the sheep are only two or so years old at slaughter – so the mutton is still quite tender.

I have always said that if you eat meat you should be prepared to kill it.  Well now was the chance to put words into action. Not that I was looking forward to it.  For a man who hates accidentally running rabbits over in the car, how was I going to cope with deliberately cutting a sheep’s throat?  Then skinning and gutting it?  Well you don’t really think about it too much.  There is a job to be done.  You just do it.  A quick cut through both jugulars and death soon follows.  It is amazing how far the blood spurts.  (Sorry was that too much information?)  The men work in pairs methodically and deftly with razor-sharp knives on each animal.  I help Nicky and Derek and it takes less than half an hour to skin, gut and process each carcass.

No part of the animal goes to waste.  Livers, kidneys and hearts are all used.  The stomach and parts of the intestine used for tripe or sausages.  The trotters and heads are used in soups. Only the fleece, stomach contents and lower intestine is put aside for fertilising the potato patches.  It’s a long hot bloody afternoon. Thirst slaked with another beer, we finish off and take the carcases and buckets of sweetmeats back to the settlement for dividing out.  The carcases are washed and hung for overnight before being butchered and frozen. 

Like after all major Tristan events men celebrate by going round everyone’s house chatting and having a drink. It’s another late night!  The following morning Emma, Nicky’s wife, pops round and very kindly gives me a huge joint for roasting and half a dozen ribs of mutton.  Roasted on a bed of coarsely chopped potatoes, carrots and onions, it was really tender and absolutely delicious!  Perfect for Easter Sunday!


We don’t have much survey work left to do but very frustratingly the weather and sea conditions continues to thwart progress.

We’ve just had a three masted sailing ship called the Europa visit the island and that has enlivened Easter weekend.  The shops, museum, pub have all been open and various events have been laid on for its 35 working passengers.  It started in Terra del Fuego.  Then visited the South Shetland Islands, where it temporarily got stuck in sea-ice, and South Georgia before arriving at Tristan da Cunha on Friday.  It’s currently rigging its sails and getting ready to depart for Cape Town.

 I spotted a martin (similar to a Sand Martin) flying over the village this week.  A reminder that this is migration time, though I’m not entirely sure where this bird was going.  Talking about birds, as dusk falls the air is now full of strange whistling noises.  Made by Black haglets, or Great-winged Petrels, I believe, as they return to their burrows in preparation for breeding over the coming winter.  They are nocturnal to avoid the attentions of predators like Tristan Skuas. But that doesn’t stop nest predation by rats and mice.


  1. Hi Jim, salutations from a wet and windy London. It sounds like you're having a fascinating time. Even though I'm a long term veggie, it's good to hear about people utilising animals sensibly - something we could really do with relearning here. Best wishes, Mark Spencer

  2. Hi Mark,We get the London news opt out on BBC 1 here and I see its been pretty wet in the SE. Oh I guess it will help alleviate the drought! Its getting pretty wintry here now. 40mm of rain forecast tonight. We had thunder and lighting the other night and I'm sure some of the rumbles would have registered on the Richter scale! Best Wishes