Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leader sheep

Christmas in a leadership role

It is the rare sheep that is a leader. Christmas is. She’s hungry and fearless, so she’ll walk right up to us, check out our hands for snacks, and finding none, go back to grazing at our feet. Her lamb follows her, but won’t eat from our hands. She hovers just out of reach, interested, curious, but not a leader.

Most leader sheep grew up as bottle lambs. They learn that people are good and people bring food. Most important for shepherds without sheep dogs, bottle lambs learn that people will lead them to food. Christmas was a surprise, born just before Christmas, about two months before we expected any lambs. Her mother didn’t have either the milk or the patience to mother a lamb, so Dave and I did the mothering. Beginning December 23, and for the following month we went out to the barn every three to six hours to feed the new baby. We learned to love her and she learned to follow us.

When it is time for me to move the sheep from the close cropped yellow pastures of late summer out onto the fresh alfalfa growing in the hayfield, I expect Christmas to follow me and the rest of the flock to follow Christmas.

I open the first gate and walk through, calling “Hay, ewes.” Christmas is right on my heels and the others stream out behind us as we run through the next two gates. Suddenly, everyone comes to a screeching halt when we reach the perimeter fence on the very last pasture.

When we first fenced our land we didn’t imagine that some years we would run out of pasture. We were more interested in making our fences invincible to predators than in creating a gate to the outside world. When we found we needed to move the sheep out into the hayfield, we did the quick and dirty thing and just cut a three foot opening in the fence. We patched the opening with a section of hog panel and the “gate” has worked well. But three feet isn’t a very big gate and we only use it a couple of times a year – once out and once back into the pasture from the hayfield. So the sheep just don’t recognize the opening as a gate to a new pasture.

I harried them across the last pasture, closer to the gate. They ignored it and started grazing in large circles away from where I needed them to be. “Hay ewes!” I called, stooping to step through the gate myself. “Hay ewes!” I moved into the hayfield. They still ignored me.

I trudged back to the barnyard to get Dave. Together we harried the sheep like sheep dogs, running back and forth behind them, trying to herd them through the opening, not exactly biting at their heels, but wishing we could. They milled around. “They don’t remember there’s a gate here,” Dave said. “Why don’t you go through and show them how.”

”I already tried that,” I said. “It made no difference.” But this time when I stooped and stepped through the gate, calling the sheep as I moved, Christmas lifted her head and watched me. Then she began to move. Dave watched quietly from behind the sheep as first one, then another and finally the entire flock streamed through the tiny hole in the fence. Kalie, the alpaca, was last. She looked carefully at the opening, then ducked her head and stepped gracefully through.

I looked at Dave. He looked at me and we both laughed. Then before either of us could close the gate, Christmas turned around and walked back out of the hayfield and into the empty pasture. “You get back in there!” Dave shouted. And miracle of miracles, Christmas led herself back out through the gate.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I've always pronounced it "Hey, Ewes". Hay makes so much more sense. Thanks for the clarification!