My drive home from work takes me across the countryside through a network of lanes and past an abattoir. I often wonder if the animals destined for slaughter there have any inkling of what might be about to happen to them. They must have been able to smell the fresh scents of grass and wildflowers, and the rank overtones of damp vegetation and earth from the stream which runs alongside the lane as the transporter took them on their final journey.
On the occasion in question, as I drew nearer to the abattoir, I noticed a frenzy of activity in the car park and slowed down to investigate. Several burley chaps clad in green overalls and wellies came charging out into the lane in hot pursuit of a large sheep which had apparently made a dash for freedom. I stopped and watched in horrified fascination as, cushioned by its luxuriant fleece, the escapee bounced off several parked cars and skidded around the corner on two legs before careering off down the lane in front of me, bleating loudly.
The slaughterhouse men charged en masse after the sheep cursing and swearing as it disappeared around a bend in the lane. I overtook them and caught up with the runaway, being careful to keep well back in case it turned around. But the sheep kept on running, eventually veering onto the opposite side of the carriageway. Here the lane climbed uphill slightly and from my vantage point I could make out a little red car approaching from the opposite direction. The sheep was still on the wrong side of the road as we approached a hump-backed bridge and there was no way the driver of the oncoming vehicle would see it in time.
I stopped and watched helplessly as car and sheep collided. I saw the driver's eyes widen in alarm as the sheep was thrown onto his bonnet and bounced against the windscreen before rolling back into the lane. Fortunately the driver had slowed down considerably to negotiate the blind summit of the bridge and the sheep's thick, woolly fleece saved it from injury. It lay stranded on its back, legs paddling wildly. We both jumped out of our vehicles and stood looking at each other in shock.
The sheep lay quite still and we feared the worst. Then, it abruptly shook itself and jumped to its feet apparently unharmed. It considered us for a moment, bleated indignantly and dived into the thick undergrowth of the roadside verge. In the distance I could hear the approaching slap of wellies on tarmac. Suddenly, there was a commotion in the bushes and a frantic scrabbling of cloven hooves. The sheep had evidently realised that capture was imminent and had somehow leapt not just the hawthorn hedge but the fence behind it too before making good its escape into the field.
It was just in the nick of time too. The slaughterhouse men appeared, puffing and cursing. The little red car driver and I exchanged a knowing smile and nodded in the direction of the sheep's escape route. All eyes followed ours. "Oh bugger it!" exclaimed one of the men, removing his flat cap and flinging it to the ground in disgust.
We all looked over the hedge into the field at the large flock of sheep grazing peacefully there. The slaughtermen shook their heads and admitted defeat. As they trudged away, I swear one particularly large and lucky sheep turned to me and winked!
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)