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Your next read: Saved from the Waves

Head out on a rather unusual rescue with the crew at Lough Swilly. In this extract from the new book Saved from the Waves, John McCarter, Lifeboat Operations Manager, describes a memorable call out to a stranded sheep. 

The crew at Lough Swilly carry a sheep to safety on their lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Joe Joyce

The crew at Lough Swilly, rescuing a stranded sheep

My phone rang. I glanced down. It was Malin Head Coast Guard. 

‘Hello?’ I answered. 

‘Hi, John, we need you down at the other end of the lough,’ the coastguard said. ‘There isn’t life at risk as yet. But there’s a sheep in bother.’
A what, now?

‘Pardon?’ I replied.

‘There’s a sheep in bother,’ he repeated.

I stifled a laugh. ‘Yeah, you’re having me on.’

We were used to varied shouts, from pleasure crafts in difficulty to big commercial shipping jobs, but while the area was very agricultural, we rarely got tasked with animal rescues. When they came along, it was always a surprise. 

‘No, no, I’m not,’ the coastguard continued. 

I listened as he explained how some local fishermen had spotted the animal stuck on a ledge in a ravine at Leenan Head. The sheep wasn’t so much of an immediate problem as the farmer, who didn’t want to lose one of his prime stock. He and his family were at the top of the cliff, and looked as though they might try to retrieve it themselves. When that happened, it usually ended up with the person – or persons – in more trouble than the animal. We couldn’t have that.

I paged the crew immediately, and minutes later they launched. 

‘This rescue will be really exciting, but once you’ve got the sheep you’ll need to concentrate on keeping him still and quiet until you get him back to shore,’ I said.

Sheep were skittish creatures at the best of times and they were big too. The last thing you wanted was one kicking and panicking in your lifeboat. It was dangerous for the crew as well as for the animal.

Thankfully, when they arrived at the scene the weather wasn’t causing any problems. Approaching those cliffs in a big swell could be treacherous, but it was sunny and calm. Even more importantly, they could see the farmer and his folks were at the top of the cliff, staying put. The sight of them put the reason for the shout into perspective. If any of them had even tried to go down the cliff, sure as fate they would fall and end up hurt. 

The cliffs were about 300 feet high. From what I’d been told, it seemed like the sheep had gone on a little walk down them but lost its footing and slipped about 50 to 60 feet, finding itself on a ledge just above the water level. A sheep is a fairly sure-footed creature and getting down cliffsides is in its nature. But getting back up them could be another matter altogether. I imagined it was also a heck of a lot more daunting.

The fishing boat that raised the alarm was still at Leenan Head, along with a kayaker. They pointed the sheep out to the lifeboat crew, and the flat, calm conditions meant the crew were able to get right up to the ledge.

‘We’ve tried to shoo it back up the cliff,’ Helm Eamonn Mahon reported. ‘But it’s not budging. Poor thing is shaking.’

‘You’re going to have to grab hold of it,’ I said into the radio. ‘Just try not to get it in the water.’ 

It turned out the sheep was an adult Scottish Blackface, a hardy breed that on average weighed about 145lbs. Heavier than a barrel of beer! 

But if its fleece got wet, that weight would increase significantly again – and if it entered the water … well, they might lose it altogether. None of us wanted that. 

The first phase of the rescue seemed to go successfully. One of the crew and the kayaker had entered the water, approached the ledge and somehow had managed to gently manoeuvre the sheep into the kayak. All well and good, but now they had to get it into the lifeboat.

One of the crew, Seamus McDaid, had been assigned as sheep-grabber. He was positioned at the bow of the oat and was awaiting instruction. He had farmers in his family, so there was a chance he’d be able to draw on some of that experience. 

‘He’s approaching him carefully,’ Eamonn said from the helm. ‘Trying to keep him calm.’

‘Great,’ I said. ‘When he gets it, tell him to keep tight hold.’ 

For a while the radio went quiet, then it crackled back to life. 

‘OK,’ said Eamonn, stifling what sounded like a laugh. ‘He’s got hold of it by its fleece.’

I could hear a bit of background noise. Turns out, the sheep wasn’t coming easy. It wasn’t a tense struggle. More a source of hilarity as Seamus tried to get the animal in his grip. He had made a few lunges, but the sheep leapt out of the way. Now that he had hold of him and had got him onto the bow, he wasn’t quite sure what to do.

‘He’s keeping tight hold of him,’ Eamonn reassured me. Truth be told, there wasn’t much more he could do.

‘Tell him to think of a sheep being sheared,’ I said. ‘Turn it on its back and hold it between his legs.’ Sheep had a notoriously hard time getting up off their backs. But if they let it get upright on its legs, it’d be off out of the boat and back in danger. Seamus just needed to get him on his back and hold tight. The radio went quiet again as Eamonn relayed my message.

Messages pinged back and forth on the radio as the crew struggled to get the bemused sheep fully into the lifeboat.

It seemed like the advice worked. Seamus had the sheep on its back, with his own legs locked around it. ‘We’re heading to meet its owners and hand him back now,’ Eamonn said.

‘Good work,’ I said. ‘Well done!’

The crew had managed the whole situation brilliantly and proved there really was no job too difficult or unusual for us to tackle. The harbour they’d arranged to drop the sheep off at was only 5 or 10 minutes away. The sea was still calm and the boat wasn’t likely to bounce around much, but I could guarantee that it would have felt like the longest journey of Seamus’ life.

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