George Lee crawled across the backs of sheep as he searched for one animal that didn’t look quite like the others. He spotted her toward the back, by a wooden barricade. She was white, like the rest of the flock, but had a very short haircut. He wrapped his arms around her neck and steered her wriggling body into another pen.
“Sometimes you have to wrestle with them,” he said triumphantly, before rushing back inside the enclosure to round up another stray.
The next catch wasn’t so easy. George waved his arms and tried to block the animal with his body. But the little ewe was too quick. She slipped by him and fled back to the safety of the woolly crowd.
“Yee-haw,” his 10-year-old cousin, Jessica Lee, shouted in her crisp English accent.
Time to break for lunch.
George, who’s 9, lives on a farm on the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory with more than 700 islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. His family owns 40,000 sheep and 300 cows, and some weekends and school breaks, George throws himself into country life.
“You have to like being out in camp and being a farmer,” said George, who hopes to attend farming college in New Zealand.
At Port Howard, the largest settlement on West Falkland (population: 30 people), he corrals sheep on a motorbike and assists with the shearing, or shaving, of the animals. On a rainy day in February, George spent the morning in the shearing shed wrangling shorn sheep that had accidentally mixed in with the untrimmed ones. He then headed to the wool-sorting table, where he removed darker, undesirable clumps from the whole coat.
“I get paid in sweets and drinks,” he said after pulling his last tuft.
He ran off to collect his wages: a lemonade and pack of Rolo caramels.
The farm has more than just Old MacDonald’s usual lineup. Commerson’s dolphins, which are colored like Double Stuf Oreos, frolic in the lagoon by the Lees’ house. Over Christmas break, which is actually summer in the Southern Hemisphere, he and his father rescued eight dolphins stranded in shallow water. His family also tackled a bush fire caused by lightning and helped a man whose car had broken down while he was out viewing penguins.
Yes, you read that right: penguins, which are as common on the Falklands as squirrels are in Washington.
George is a member of Falklands Conversation’s Watch Group, an environmental organization that takes kids on field trips to islands with more sea lions and penguins than people. On one recent outing, more than 30 children picked up trash on Elephant Beach. They were joined by some special guests, who didn’t lift a wing to assist.
“That’s a rockie,” George pointed out, referring to the Southern rockhopper, one of five penguin species that live on the islands. The lone rockhopper was bouncing around and squawking at the gentoo and Magellanic penguins, which squabbled back. It was like a professional wrestling match on Animal Planet.
During the week, George lives and attends school in Stanley, the capital. But he doesn’t take a school bus from Port Howard; the drive is too far and too wet.
Instead, George and his younger sister, Anna, ride a 90-minute ferry across the Falkland Sound to East Falkland. Then they sit in the car for about two hours. Sometimes, they fly in a tiny red plane that often stops on other islands to pick up passengers. Up in the air, George can see Southern right whales.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, George and his family boarded a plane that had landed behind their house. He settled into the co-pilot’s seat and slipped on a headset so that he could chat with the pilot. The aircraft rumbled across the grass, then lifted off the ground and disappeared into the blue sky.
George wouldn’t be late for school the next morning.
The Falkland Islands is a British overseas territory close to the bottom tip of South America. Wayyy down there. In fact, a few residents of Antarctica (chinstrap and Adelie penguins, for instance) sometimes get lost and end up on the Falklands. Here are some other facts about the specks of land near the bottom of the world:
• About 2,500 people live on the islands. English is the main language, although many residents — half a million sheep — speak “baa.”
• The country is about the size of Connecticut. People island-hop on red airplanes. The night before the flight, the airline will announce the departure times and passengers’ names on the radio — for all the islanders to hear.
• The wildlife is, well, wild. The islands are home to more than 200 species of birds, including the world’s largest populations of gentoo penguins (they look like they are wearing orange lipstick) and Southern giant petrels. (Their nickname is “stinkers,” for a very icky reason.) Sea lions and elephant seals lounge on beaches and rocks, and Commerson’s and Peale’s dolphins splash off the coast.
• There are no colleges (or stoplights, McDonald’s or free public WiFi) on the islands. After secondary school, which is similar to high school, students can attend a university in the United Kingdom for free.
• Some visitors leave one boot in an area known as Boot Hill, with the idea that they will one day return to reclaim it.