Sunday 27 March 2016


In my piece to ranter about poaching of rhino horn, I pointed out that the price is reaching dizzying heights with a diminishing supply and an insatiable demand: somewhere North of $100,000/kg which is a mind-bending $100/g. And for what? Keratin is what. If keratin is keratin, and I believe it is, then The Beloved and I have come in for a windfall if only we can sort out the marketing and shipping to Hanoi to our medical-woowah agent out there.  Of course, our keratin isn't rhino keratin, it's sheep hoof keratin but I'm betting that nobody in The East would notice the difference in a blind tasting.

Since we offed the last of the ram lambs for chops a tuthree weeks ago. we only have ewes and hoggets on the farm and it's a while before we can shear them, so they need a bit of care and attention in the foot department.  Nothing dramatic like last year's amputation but definitely a trim and a bit of doctoring. Sheep are the very divil for limping.  If the grass is wet they get fungus between the claws, if the grass is long they get paper-cuts in the same slot, if the ground is soft the nail grows soft and covers the pad.  Ideally we'd like to run them up and down the road once a week to sand-paper off the excess but our sheep are wild and wonderful and would be awa' off to foreign parts as soon as the shepherd turned his back. The nails are, therefore, clipped with a variety of tools; none wholly satisfactory. If we did them more often we'd get better at the chore and quicker too. In the middle of last week, after 2 weeks without rain, the sheep were bone dry which makes handling them less soppy and depressing but we were promised a spill of rain in the afternoon, so we were under pressure to finish before the deluge. As it turned out it took us an average of 8 minutes for each of 24 sheep.  Some of them the size of horses and some light enough to lift with one hand.  Each had to be turned and sat down and held still for the clip. For the more docile (not necessarily the smallest), it was possible for me to work away on the front feet while TB got down and dirty with the hind legs. Then the most dangerous thing was to take a flying nail clipping in the face. With the yellow-eyed monsters, however, you can get a slashing blow from a hind-leg if you allow your attention to wander.  Kicks are, naturally, more likely if you cut to the quick. We made them all lighter by a few grams, but the spoil flew every which way, so haven't got {$100 * 3g * 24 ewes = a second hand car} to show for our trouble. Then again, nobody lost an eye and neither of us sustained a disabling kick.

Mais revenons nous a nos keratins.  As quick as thought I started to tool up to the protein database and download the keratin sequence from white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum and the equivalent from the sheep Ovis aries, to find out just how similar or otherwise the two sequences were. Dang! it's more complicated than the fact that rhinos are members of the order Perissodactyla and sheep, like dolphins, are members of the Artiodactyla.  There's a whole family of keratins and keratin-like and keratin-associated molecules to choose from.  Some expressed in nails and hair and horn and others in the 'squamous epithelium' of the skin - when you talk of old sailors having horny hands you are closer to the truth that you think.  Oh Oh Oh, I feel an undergraduate research project coming on "Molecular similarity between sheep and rhinoceros keratins - an economic  solution to poaching in the Kruger National Park"

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