A May-December romance

I am an observer of life. I enjoy seeing the world in action and understanding how and why things occur as they do. This has been a big help in my work with the sheep, since the only way to keep sheep healthy is to observe symptoms and treat accordingly. Also, my drive to make sense of what I see has pushed me to better understand sheep genetics, leading to many interesting discoveries.

Humans have a tendency to assume that the animal world mirrors our own feelings and motivations. I try not to do this with my sheep, since respect comes from accepting others as they are. There is nothing gained by making my sheep “more human.” Sheep are sheep, and a big part of the joy of shepherding is the interaction between humans, ovines (sheep), camelids (llamas) and canines (herding or guardian dogs). Yet every once in a while I observe something in our flock that leaves me wondering just how much we may or may not have in common with our ovine friends. Yesterday was just such a day.

I was outside the Sheep Barn in the West Pasture, filling the water tank for the Romney breeding group that’s grazing there. The group is led by ram lamb Quest, who has sixteen ewes, one of the largest of this year’s groups. Since there have been very few markings in any of our groups so far, I haven’t been particularly worried that Quest has not yet marked any of his ewes. He has been making all of the right moves, but either he hasn’t figured out exactly how to consummate this newly discovered breeding ritual or his girls haven’t been willing to stand for him to achieve that end. In either case, I am nothing if not patient — at least for a bit longer — and so I’ve been checking daily for that first exciting mark that shows us he’s working.

As I filled the water yesterday, my eyes scanned the ewes in the group for any possible issues: a torn coat, a leg that has slipped out of a leg strap, a ewe breathing hard or coughing — pretty much anything that would give me a heads-up that a problem is arising. At the back corner of the building, I noticed Grace obviously enthused about something. As I watched her, she reminded me so very much of her mother Zoe, a great sheep-friend of mine who has now been gone for several years. At the time of her death, Zoe was fifteen years old — an old ewe in anyone’s book — and Grace is now ten. I saw that Grace was energized, strutting and twitching her little tail stub in the air — obviously flirting with a ram that I could not see from my vantage point.

This scene was exactly what I would often see from Zoe during breeding season. No matter what group I chose for her, Zoe would set her sights on the ram that she wanted and, when she was in heat, would flirt with him across the fields — calling to him, sashaying back and forth, and twitching her little tail stub. Eventually I realized that if I wanted lambs from Zoe, I needed to put her into the group that she chose — she would stand for no one else.

As I watched Grace going through the same breeding rituals, I immediately suspected Korbin, the older Romney ram in a small group up at the Storage Barn. His group has a very short common fenceline with Quest’s group, and I suddenly had visions of Korbin hurling his big bulk against that fence or its gate and gaining access to Quest’s ewes. I turned off the water and made my way to a better vantage point for the unfolding scene.

I realized that Grace’s show was not for Korbin, but for young Quest. Just around the corner of the building stood Quest — all 110 pounds of him. As Grace’s display ebbed and flowed, Quest provided his part of the interaction, walking around her and rubbing up against her as he did so. Eventually he came to stand at her left side with his head just behind her left ear, chortling to her in that flirtatious way that we so often hear during breeding season. Grace turned to peek at him over her left shoulder, and Quest raised his front leg to paw at the ground next to her, a ritual that is instinctual in sheep.

I had seen most of this before from Quest. He obviously knew how to woo a girl, yet there were still no markings in his group. I was curious whether this time might be different, since this was the first time I had seen him making these moves with a ewe who was obviously receptive. If his attention strayed at all, Grace was right there, bringing his attention back to her and only her! As I kept an eye on them, I realized that the two of them were doing everything together: grazing side-by-side, drinking together from the newly refilled tank, and resting in the shade in what could only be described as “spooning for sheep.” It was a sweet extended romance, but when I left the field at dusk, there was still no yellow marking on Grace’s coat.

I needn’t have worried, though; Quest came through in the end. On my rounds the next morning, Grace’s coat was well marked by Quest’s yellow crayon. His attention had moved on to another sweet girl, and Grace was once again happy to graze with her female friends. I’ll wait to see whether she comes into heat again in another two to three weeks — if she isn’t pregnant already!

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