Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Counting Sheep, Part I

It wasn't so long ago that I was afraid of most dogs, let alone real farm animals. I've never ridden a horse, and I got chased across a field by cows when my college roommate took me home for Thanksgiving in Vermont. So when my husband first brought up the subject of getting a flock of sheep to live and graze in our organic vineyard, I hemmed and hawed for a while.

From The Wizard of Oz:
Cowardly Lion: I haven't slept in weeks.
Tin Man: Why don't you try counting sheep?
Cowardly Lion: That doesn't do any good — I'm afraid of 'em.
But he played "the green card" of how much better it would be for the vineyard and the environment than running the diesel tractor/mower and the manual, noisy, gas-powered weed whackers. And way better than chemical herbicide. Besides, he reasoned, the sheep would leave natural fertilizer too! So we visited a nearby sheep ranch and I not only became smitten with the small "Babydoll" sheep (aka Olde English Babydoll Southdowns), I also fell in love with the Maremma livestock guardian dogs that lived in the pasture with the sheep.

In a month's time we found a nearby breeder with a small flock of babydolls that he was selling after he had expanded his own (human) family. And then we found a Maremma breeder who had imported a male and female from Italy a year earlier, and who had just had a litter of 7 adorable pups.

I couldn't resist the Maremma puffballs... er, puppies.

Fast-forward another month and we found ourselves with a flock of 7 sheep: 4 rams--two of which were 7 month old lambs, and 3 ewes--two of which were presumed to be pregnant and one a seven month old lamb. The owner offered us a package deal price, including delivery, that we couldn't refuse! We negotiated for the puppy to stay on the goat farm with his parents and siblings until he was a little older, and we were ready to bring him to his new home and job.

Our neighbor graciously allowed us to temporarily put the sheep out in one of their fenced-in, but unused pastures. Good thing, as we had no place to put them up at the Vineyard! We'd go over several times a day to feed, check on, and marvel at the wooly beasts. Who knew, when I said "I Do," that I would become a shepherd?! My friends and family's reactions spanned the range from amused to aghast.

7 Babydoll sheep, grazing on The Jones' hillside
Whereas just prior to the flock's arrival I was in a blissful state of "un-conscious incompetence," by the time the first week was over I was fairly overwhelmed with my certainty of "conscious incompetence." Three incidents fueled those feelings and also put me on my way to learning quickly under fire.

1. A mountain lion was spotted cruising the fence where the Jones' goats grazed in the pasture just across the road from the sheep. John sketched a rough design for a "barn," and we dashed off to the lumber yard the day before Thanksgiving to get the materials to build said barn... or more accurately, shed. We built the 8x10 barn in an afternoon, the first thing I'd ever (helped) built. We got the sheep into the barn at dusk, wrapped our newly arrived electro-net fence around it, and went to bed exhausted.

The barn in its first iteration. We herded and then secured
all 7 sheep in the barn every night for a couple of months.
2. The alpha ram, a regal beast that we named Farley, butted me hard from behind on my behind while I was (obviously) not being attentive. I learned the critical shepherd lesson #1: Never turn your back on a ram.

3. When we came out to feed and check up on the sheep one afternoon, we found the two adult rams, Farley and his son Tupper, butting the heck out of each other using their heads as "battering rams." It left no doubt in my mind where the term had originated. Over and over the two backed up, faced off, and then ran at each other, ramming their heads together until the two of them looked like their brains were spilling out of the tops of their heads. That night we did a RUSH order on two ram shields to block their forward vision--which prevented the rams from charging us or each other. 

Amateur hour; me trying to adjust the straps on Farley's shield

The fact that Tupper quickly learned how to escape from his shield is a mere detail... But having Farley in his shield removed him from the duel. Tupper stopped initiating the charges when Farley couldn't play his role. Lesson learned: Rams are aggressive toward each other when ewes go into heat, even when the rams are father and son, and even when you assumed a first year ewe wouldn't go into heat! Who knew?!

What I did know is that I had a lot to learn and that there would be a lot of "oh sh*t" moments while I learned them. I also was starting to learn that I could tell these 7 sheep apart pretty quickly, and recognize behavioral traits and which sheep hung out with which other sheep out in the pasture. And so began my journey as a shepherd.

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