Two years ago, at Rhinebeck, Primo spent some time sitting on a lamb's pelt thrown over a chair in the Coopworth breed display.
"Mom, this is awesome! So comfortable! So warm! How come we don't have any of these from OUR lambs?"
I explained that I just hadn't been able to face the process just yet. You see, to get pelts, you need sheepskins. And to get sheepskins, you need to ask the butcher to save them for you, and then you need to scrape and salt them to get them ready for the tannery. Rather than deal with that, I just had the butcher toss them.
My son pointed out that this was a tremendous waste of the gift of life the animal had given us. (He was reading a book about Native American Indians at the time, and the philosophy had resonated.) He declared that he would help me with the skins, and begged me to have the butcher save the next batch for us.
Before agreeing, I had him do his research. He spoke with several people at length, and they explained how they prepared the skins in great detail. He was still gung ho, and even decided that his annual 4-H presentation would be on the topic of "how to prepare a lamb skin for tanning," complete with pictures and tanning factory tour.
He was given slight pause when the butcher noted, upon being asked to save the skins, that "it was a gory business." I urged Primo to consider the source. If a BUTCHER tells you something is gory, that is pretty significant. Primo was undeterred, however. I came home from the butcher earlier this week with a freezer's worth of meat, and four frozen pelts.
Because the freezer was full, the pelts had to be defrosted immediately. Never mind that we are crazy busy at work, and Primo had his holiday concert, and we have a new puppy that can't seem to keep straight just where he is supposed to be peeing, anyway. The weather has been unseasonably warm, which aided the defrosting process, but also meant that we had to work quickly to make sure the skins didn't rot. After 24 hours, Primo and I went out to the bicycle shed -- the only place on the farm that was protected from animals who would have an understandable interest in the skins -- and started to open up the pelts.
To set the stage, you should understand that the shed doesn't have any electricity. It was just past dusk and we were working by flashlight. You should also understand that we had never seen a raw sheepskin before. So it came as quite a shock to both of us when we unrolled the first pelt and the legs were still attached.
Primo, understandably, freaked the frack out.
At this point, Terzo came running up to the shed to give me a message. We hit the lights and luckily, he saw nothing, but was a little miffed that we were both screaming at him to get back to the house. I sent Primo back as well, then put the skin back into the bag and called my sheep friend Val, who laughed her butt off at my panic. "Oh, didn't I mention that to you? Yeah, that butcher leaves them on."
Now, how could anyone fail to mention what is, to my mind, a fairly important piece of information?
Val kindly agreed to come and cut them off for me, but told me I had to get the skins salted as soon as possible. (The salt dries them out and halts decomposition; the weather was still warm, and was working against me at this point.) I spent the whole night stewing. How was I going to deal with this? I was ready to throw the whole lot in the garbage but I was afraid that the garbagemen would never pick up our trash again. I thought about throwing them in the woods but knew that would create more problems, as it would draw local coyotes to our place and give them a taste for lamb. I thought about burying them in the back next to the pond, but it had rained for two days straight and the ground was very soggy. My long-suffering father even offered to come up and help, but for crying out loud, I am almost 40 (gulp) and I can't keep expecting my dad to bail me out of every crazy situation I get myself into. Goodness knows he already does it on enough of a regular basis.
So I took a deep breath and took care of it myself the next morning with a pair of fiskars scissors. After the inital revulsion, it wasn't really that bad. It turns out only one pelt had the legs on; it was just very bad luck that it was the first one we opened. I won't claim that there weren't other unmentionables that had to be dealt with, but I will spare you the gory details at this point.
(I should mention that my LSH did help me out. His initial reaction was along the lines of "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into," but by the end we were talking about what we would do differently the next time.)
We are very fortunate to live somewhat close to a tannery, and so rather than take a chance and dry them myself, I drove them straight there for processing. A four-hour round trip in the pouring rain was not on my schedule this close to the holidays, but I am very happy that I am no longer responsible for those darn skins. After all that, the tannery told me we were too enthusiastic with the trimming, and should be much more conservative the next time. Guess we got a little too into it.
And poor Primo seems to have recovered, though he did sleepwalk three separate times that night. I can just see him on the therapy couch decades from now, saying "I saw something nasty in the woodshed..."*
*Mrs. C. gets credit for that quote, but three points to anyone else who can name the source.