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Teaching Old Sheep New Tricks

A photo of Sarah SI can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Sheep are so stupid, they’re just looking for a place to die.” I know some people that own sheep that absolutely hate them, and their flocks look terrible. Other shepherds I know have huge flocks that may not get a lot of individual attention, but they thrive none-the-less. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about the attitude of the shepherd, not the sheep. 

There is no doubt about it – sheep require a lot of work. But more than the physical work of trimming feet and shearing and doctoring, it requires a lot of attention paid. I believe sheep are creatures of habit. Just like Pavlov’s dogs, they can be trained to come when you rattle the can of corn or (in my case) drive up the driveway.

We live in town and while we’ve been known to have bummers in the yard (none yet this year!) we don’t as a general rule keep sheep at our house. Instead I worked out an arrangement with a long-time family friend where I do the noon lamb check duty during the week while she’s at her “real” job in exchange for our sheep bunking in with hers. 

For the first few days I had to call the sheep to the barn or send the dog after them. About one week into lambing season, I saw the sheep pick up on the pattern. The driveway goes right next to the field where the pregnant ewes are grazing. I drive up the driveway, go to the house to get the dog and supplies and walk to the barn. When I drive by, their heads are perked up and paying attention. By the time I get to the barn, the fat old girls are making their way through the barnyard gate and waiting for me at the manger. I call that knowing where your bread is buttered – not stupid.

I think that a lot of shepherding is teaching the sheep habits and getting rid of the animals that are trouble makers. For instance I’m a firm believer in getting rid of animals that go through fences or jump panels – these are my pet peeves. Once a sheep goes through a fence whether it’s electric or otherwise they will continue to do so and teach others the bad habit as well. So unless you plan on doing a lot of fence building, it’s easier just to get rid of that animal.

So far it’s been a quiet lambing season – the biggest excitement for me was to milk a ewe and feed her lamb who didn’t seem to be thriving. I gave him a little dextrose to perk him up and it seems to have been a miracle cure. Little Man really wants some lambs at home – I’m really hoping we don’t have to go that route, but we’ll see what the future holds. Happy lambing to you!