Meditations

Meeting Our Lambs at Cutter Ranch


Cutter Ranch sheep check out guests on the ranch.

Cutter Ranch sheep check out guests on the ranch.

Ewes normally have twins. But sometimes they have triplets.

One lamb is born, then a second, and if a third comes it’s a surprise to the ewe and to the farmer. The ewe looks up and counts: one, two, um, three.

Three? Three is too many. Three means the ewe is confused and doesn’t usually take to any of the lambs. The farmer has to step in to keep them together to make sure they take. The ewes only have 2 nipples after all.

Tyler McNaughton told us this quick story, among many other stories, standing in the doorway of the birthing barn when we visited him and his fiancee Sacha at Cutter Ranch a few weekends ago.

Tyler McNaughton and Sacha Bentall of Cutter Ranch.

Tyler McNaughton and Sacha Bentall of Cutter Ranch.

“This is where your food comes from,” he said and pointed to the adjustable fencing sections they set up to form the birthing pens. This was where the lambs were born, whether twins or triplets.

Behind Tyler a small room held a cot, an electric heater and a bottle of rye whiskey. One the wall hung branding irons numbered 1 to 9. They showed the remains of the blue paint used to keep track of the lambs. During birthing season ranching lambs was a 24-hour job.

Cutter Ranch Suffolk sheep peer through the fence at Foodist visitors.

Cutter Ranch Suffolk sheep peer through the fence at Foodist visitors.

The Cutter Ranch has between 60 and 80 head of sheep just north of Clinton, BC, on a wide plane of land reached by Big Bar Road. Turn left off the highway and pass a cattle ranch, scrubby forests and 4 cattle gates. Then cross a small stream and you enter a wide pastures filled with grass, a few horses and all those lambs.

Lambs run everywhere — along the fence parallel to the road, in front of the car, through the gardens and among the 7 or 8 barns, sheds and buildings of Cutter Ranch. A creek curls through the property to complete the pastoral ideal.

We arrived to this scene in 2 cars in mid afternoon after a 4.5 hour drive from Vancouver. We hadn’t stopped for lunch because Tyler mentioned they’d have something ready for us. We had climbed from the coast, up the Fraser River valley to Lytton, branching east along the Thompson River valley to Ashcroft, then heading north along the gold rush route that hugs the Bonaparte Valley through the centre of the province. Now we were in the high country.

Rosemary-crust country pizza from Cutter Ranch lunch.

Rosemary-crust country pizza from Cutter Ranch lunch.

Soon after we arrived wine was opened and we sat around the large dining table as homemade pizzas roasted in the oven. Sacha’s father Barney told us about the history of the place, how they’d come to own it and the cattle ranch they’d run previously.

With our hunger well satisfied we walked out among the lambs to see the Cutter Ranch. We met the 5 dogs of Cutter Ranch, 2 black labs, 2 shepharding dogs and one golden retriever.

Cutter Ranch barn, lambs and sheep grazing at inner meadows.

Cutter Ranch barn, lambs and sheep grazing at inner meadows.

Sacha showed us her blacksmith shop where a real live anvil sat among pincers and the materials of her trade. Of course, she had trained as a farrier in Olds, Alberta and worked shoeing horses at Spruce Meadows. Of course.

We walked through the birthing barn and crossed the creek to the horse barn. We found the mature sheep in a movable enclosure just beyond the paddock where Sacha rode her quarter horses.

“He smells like lamb,” Mark said, petting the head of the most friendly sheep. And he did smell like lamb.

Lessons in animal husbandry on the Cutter Ranch.

Lessons in animal husbandry on the Cutter Ranch.

We leaned on the fence. We watched the sheep eat and baa. Tyler told us that he moved the sheep every few days. On fresh pasture they showed their preferences: first they ate the dandelions, then the weeds, then the grasses.

They ranched 2 breeds of sheep: the Suffolk marked by their black faces and taller bodies, the Charolais marked by their white faces and wider haunches.

Each of the 2 rams wore a harness on their front shoulders that left a swatch of reddish chalk exposed on their sternum. When a ram mounted a ewe to mate they left a chalk mark to indicate that the countdown to birth should begin.

We walked out over the long, ungrazed grass beyond the moveable enclosure and started the irrigation rig of wheels and pipes that pulled water from the creek and made the ground bloom green. Tyler showed us how to walk it over the pasture and it rolled forward like a great water-spraying carpet.

Lessons in animal husbandry on the Cutter Ranch.

Mark getting to know one of the surprisingly friendly rams.

The rest of the afternoon we spent on the ranch. Barney showed us how to hit golf balls with a pitching iron and get the dogs retrieving them. We poked our heads into the ranch saloon and root cellar, both just what you’d expect from their name.

Later we ate coffee cake and drank Cowboy Coffee off the tailgate of a farm truck.

As we made to leave it felt like we’d visited a whole other world than our city lives. Maybe even a whole other time that our civilized life insulates from us. Here birth and death happened with some regularity and were treated with respect but without sentimentality.

Tyler and Sacha felt the challenge of trying to raise their lambs in a sustainable manner. It was hard work. And they also felt up for the challenge. They had a great passion for making it work.

In emails since our trip, Tyler and I have mentioned making the trip an annual event. And I feel like I’d be lucky to be part of that kind of tradition.

In a few weeks we have 3 lambs, split into halves for 6 people, arriving from Cutter Ranch. While we were on the farm Tyler wanted to point out to us which lambs would be ours. Some of us wanted to know and others didn’t.

Mark named his Suffolk lamb Angus.

More Photos and Credits

More photos from the trip to Cutter Ranch on Flickr in the Foodists Cutter Ranch lamb pool and from the following:

Thanks to the Gang at Cutter Ranch for the great trip!

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