Switcheroo

sheepAs you might recall, when we first got our sheep we didn’t begin with our true starter flock. We had selected two ewes and four ewe lambs, but two of the lambs were not weaned yet, so we found ourselves in a temporary situation: Aretha and her two lambs (one ewe, one ram) would stay with us for a couple of weeks, and the other ewe lamb would remain on Marian White’s farm with her mother until it was time to trade. That time was last Saturday.

I have to admit I was a little nervous about the switch. Though Marian had given us a chance to practice our sheep-wrangling skills on her flock, this was the first time we’d have to capture an individual on our farm. Sheep are crafty, slippery little buggers. They can jump like deer and squeeze through tiny openings, and I was concerned that if something went amiss we might be chasing sheep all morning.

We did our best to prepare. First, we lured all of the sheep into a catch pen that Rick had set up in the barn. Then Rick and Marian unloaded the large pet carrier that held Caramel, our remaining ewe lamb, and brought it over to the catch pen gate. We cracked the gate a tiny bit, then opened the carrier. After a moment and a little coaxing, Caramel jumped out of the crate to join the other sheep. Meanwhile, I had managed to grab the ram lamb while he and the others were distracted by grain. I was very careful to keep a grip on one of his horns so that he could not flail and jab me. He struggled for several seconds, then went completely limp as I tried to shuffle him over to the carrier. With a sigh of relief I shoved him in and we slammed the door. By this time, the females were all checking out the new arrival, and after the ram was safely loaded into Marian’s truck we let the sheep out.

Our guard llama Kuzco immediately sensed the new arrival and chased her a little, trying to get close for a good sniff. After a few minutes he too seemed to accept the new girl, so we turned the whole flock out on pasture. Marian departed and we turned our attention to other chores.

During the swap process I had been expecting Aretha to put up some sort of protest about what was going on. I’m not sure what I was anticipating, but I thought she might try to block my attempts to grab her lamb, if not aggressively at least by standing in the way or allowing the ram to hide behind her. But it had been very easy to nab him, and Aretha did not seem to notice that I had done so.  Soon, though, it became obvious that she had noticed.

Aretha is our flock matron, and quite vocal. She will “baaah” at me for grain, or to be let out to fresh grass. She will use the same short call to bring the other sheep to her if they are lagging at a distance.  But the call she made after the ram was gone was quite different. It was long, and loud, and persistent.  Periodically and throughout the afternoon, Aretha would launch into her calls, looking around the field for her “missing” lamb. She would graze, amble about, and chew cud as well, but whenever her maternal instinct was triggered (which often seemed to correspond to when her remaining ewe lamb would come over to nurse) she would let out a course of bellows.  At first I felt guilty for having taken away her baby and caused her such stress. But as the afternoon wore on I quickly understood why shepherds complained about weaning time.  Imagine having several, dozens, even hundreds of ewes carrying on like this! On Monday Aretha was still complaining but by Tuesday she had either forgotten about the ram or given up on finding him.  I was glad to see her back to her usual behavior, for my sake too.

We were pleased that the hand-off had gone smoothly, and also glad that Marian approved of our barn and pasture setup. We certainly couldn’t have pulled off the transition to being shepherds without all of her help. Having successful experiences boosts our confidence as well. We’re looking forward to our next challenge: the first sheering day, coming up in September.