So we got sheep. Shepherds we are not.
At least not yet.
It takes a lot more than having a small flock of sheep to be a shepherd, I am learning. People keep telling me sheep are stupid. And I can definitely see how they might form that opinion.
After all, I did name two of them Dumb and Dumber.
But they’re not. Not really. They just see the world in their own bottom-of-the-food-chain way while we try to force them to conform to whatever management strategy we’ve learned. Or read about. Or made up all on our own based on working with cattle.
Who, I have also learned, aren’t much like sheep.
Take Dumber, for example. AKA Death Stare, Death Star and Cruella de Vil. You’d have to get to know her to understand.
But the day after we got the sheep, we fenced off a section of our yard so they could graze happily while getting used to us. Dumber and a friend immediately found a weakness in the fence and were gone before we even had a chance to go inside for a cup of tea. Looking back, I recognize a thousand mistakes and know things could have turned out better if I knew then what I know now. But then I knew only four things:
- Walk away from a startled ewe at a 45 degree angle in order to get around her.
- Never look directly at her.
- Move them slowly and they’ll make better decisions.
- All they really want is to get back to their flock.
But that I only knew from a book. Not from experience.
Now I know that I should have secured the other three ewes back in the pen, tied them, left the gate open and gotten out of the way.
Instead, we tried to get around them and chased them for miles through corn fields, bean fields and grazing land. Meanwhile, the other three got loose because no one went back to secure the fence or lock them up.
See. We were so not shepherds. Not yet, anyway.
Eventually, Dumber fell in a ditch. My husband leaped on her, flipped her on her back and dragged her up the hill where he threw her in the trunk of the SUV. I drove back for a rope with a vague plan to tie Dumber to the hitch and use her as bait to lure the other one in. Alone, however, a sheep is in a state of panic.
And she bolted.
My husband ran for two miles before he lost sight of her and that was that. No amount of driving about or talking to neighbors ever revealed another sign of her. I kept asking myself whether we did the right thing in tackling Dumber. If we had gotten her out of the ditch and let her go, would we have been able to eventually herd them back home? Together, they were a pain, but they weren’t in a panic. And they were generally predictable. But alone, that poor sheep had no sense of safety and hence no sense.
She was in a blind panic and we lost her.
Fast forward to today. It’s been a month and a half. Every morning, I have walked down to deliver feed and refill water. Every time I check on the other animals, I make a point to walk slowly through their grazing area, close enough to make them lift their heads, but never close enough to make them move. And every evening, I again walk down to deliver feed and check their water.
And in this time, none of the sheep have developed a particular affection for me. But Mira walks up to me as soon as she sees me coming. And while she won’t let me touch her, she will stick her nose in the feed bucket even while I’m holding it.
And Despereaux, the dominant one of the pack, also has no affection. But she also has no fear. She stamps her foot at me if I move too fast and is too dignified to stick her nose in a bucket I’m still holding, but she waits at her feed dish and will eat even as I stand there.
Dumb is still fearful. She hangs back and watches me feed the other sheep and watches me fill her dish, wondering what I’m up to. But as soon as she’s satisfied that I’m not that interested in her, she comes in to eat.
Not Dumber. She knows exactly how far her lead will let her go and she runs right at the end to keep me opposite her from the moment I step inside her area. She watches me fill her dish. She watches me leave her area. She watches me do the other chores. She watches me sit on the porch watching her. Or not watching her.
I have never seen her touch her feed dish. She always waits until I go back in the house.
Because she remembers.
And in the last six weeks, she has taught me a lot about what it means to be a shepherd. It takes more than having sheep. It takes more than confidence (even if it’s faked) and a knowledge of flight zones which served us through over two years of raising cattle. And it takes more than patience and a bit of sweet feed.
It takes getting to know the sheep. Each one individually and the flock as a group. It takes recognizing who they hang out with, who they follow and who they push around. It takes knowing who the leader is, who the confident one is and who the flighty one is. It takes knowing when they feel safe and when they’re getting ready to bolt.
And it takes a little respect. Because sheep are not dumb. They have very long memories. They remember being chased. They remember being tackled. They remember being sheared and they remember being vaccinated. They remember all these things, and the lessons they learn through rough handling can be very difficult for them to unlearn.
Poor Dumber’s fear is a consequence of our mistakes. But she is teaching us a lot about what it takes to become a shepherd.