Two shakes of a lamb’s tail

This was one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings – “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lambs tail”. It’s an informal unit of time. No, really. It’s an informal unit of time equal to 20 nanoseconds (since one shake is equal to 10 nanoseconds) used in nuclear physics.

In my childhood universe it was an informal unit of exponentially increasing lengths of time tending (slowly) towards infinity. Experimental evidence proved conclusively that the length of time referred to by any adult using the phrase was never congruent with my conception of “a very short time” and was far more likely to resemble “forever”.

The lambs in question shake their tails most vigorously when suckling (although no one’s quite sure why, it’s not observed in other animals) and the speed is said, anecdotally, to be about 300 wags per minute. Which makes two shakes 0.4 seconds. (Or should that be 0.4 of a second?) Anyway, here’s a lamb’s tail from Dartmoor.

Within the first three days of the lambs life, the farmer will ring the lamb’s tail. A tight rubber band is placed near the top of the tail with calipers. This restricts and eventually stops the flow of blood to the tail which falls off after a few weeks. Although this causes the lamb some discomfort for the first 24 hours, it is an effective and safe way of removing the majority of the tail which greatly reduces the risk of fly strike – a debilitating problem that can quickly lead to death.

You can see the orange of the elastic band in the picture. And, if you want to know more about fly strike and have a strong stomach, you can go here. The tails are docked to prevent accumulation of the sheep’s own shit thereon, which attracts the flies which lay the eggs which hatch the maggots which then eat the sheep. Alive.

I started thinking about tails after yesterday’s Brewer browsing also turned up this:

Daggle-tail or Draggle-tail. A slovenly woman, the bottom of whose dress trails in the dirt. Dag (of uncertain origin) means loose ends, mire or dirt; whence dag-locks, the soiled locks of a sheep’s fleece, and dag-wool, refuse wool.

I’m sure that as a child we children used the expression “daggy” meaning, roughly “unpleasantly unclean and soiled, probably including faeces, probably claggy” (pronounced “cleggy” round my way). Google disagrees with me saying it’s an Australian English term meaning “unfashionable”. This it may also well be, but not to me.

Sheep tail docking is opposed by some animal rights activists, defended by some animal husbanders. I like this general round-up of sheep and their tails at the endearing website Sheep 101.

There one also learns that the much-prized tail fat of the fat-tailed sheep is known in Arabic as “allyah”. Whether that is homophonous with the name of the late R&B singer I do not know. Nor can I ascertain whether my supposition that fat-tailed lambs shake their tails at a lower speed than other varieties is correct.


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