Now that the majority of the ewes have had their lambs weaned, they are hard at work trying to rebuild their bodies. In August just before breeding season begins, they are generally well-padded from a summer on our lush pastures that are filled with not only grass, but all manner of wildflowers, weeds, and brush. This time of year, however, they look thin and often gaunt, having given their all to their lambs first growing within them and then through the milk the lambs drank for their first two months or so. These girls have a lot of weight to put back on before the end of summer, and they are working at it full time.
As I look out across the pastures from the windows of the house, I see them eating – constantly. The rams and lambs take breaks for cudding in the late morning and then again in mid-afternoon, but not the ewes. Whenever I look out across their field, they are moving and grazing, determined to spend as little time as possible ruminating what they have ingested. It is a race to the finish that they dare not lose.
I must check each pasture every day at least once to ensure all is well. I check the lambs more often, knowing that a field full of “children” can get into trouble relatively quickly, and I am the only one who will likely save them from themselves. The adult ewes and rams, however, get fewer visits – usually only once each day. I know that they can usually take care of themselves and need little from me.
Yet when I do go out into the adult fields, I don’t often have a lot of time. During this season, my time is at a premium; besides my usual outdoor chores, I also have much correspondence to do to sell the sheep who must leave. I like to go out, check them all over, and return to my other work knowing all is well. My answer to this issue is graham crackers – the food that sheep just can’t resist!
Visiting the ram field with my graham crackers is a relatively simple thing. I stand at the fence and call the boys, who eagerly run to where I wait. My crackers are already broken down into small pieces and every ram gets one, no matter which one is pushy and greedy – only one piece to a customer. They generally all know this, so after they get theirs, most of the boys vacate to make room for the rams behind them. Latham is not quite so polite – and is actually the reason I complete my visits standing outside of the fence rather than in among the boys: Latham has lost his manners and has decided that his entire goal in life is to seriously head-butt me. Needless to say, he will be leaving just after shearing; there is no place in my flock for this attitude in any of my sheep. Until then, however, I keep back behind the fence at a safe distance.
I do walk in among my ewes, and visiting with them reminds me of film clips I’ve seen of aid workers walking among the resident populations in drought-ridden countries in Africa or similar situations – only my residents are sheep! I am followed by crowds of sheep milling around me, mouths open, grabbing at the small morsels I offer. The girls have a huge field overgrown with grass and wildflowers, but they cannot eat any of it fast enough – they seem to find no respite from their hunger.
My crackers are not meant to be filling. Each ewe gets at most one half of one cracker in a day – not enough to even make a dent in the calories she needs! The way the girls follow me around, lips extended, often walking on only back legs as they try to make themselves seen, you would think I was handing out buckets of grain but no, only small bits of crackers – that and a moment of attention and love.
As each girl gets her cracker, I talk to her. “Oh, January! You are beginning to fill out a bit now that your three boys aren’t sucking it all out of you!” or “Midnight, how patient you are, waiting your turn while Nypsi walks over the top of you! Shame on you, Nypsi!” Each girl hears her name while she eats, and many lock eyes with me as the sweetness of the crackers floods their mouths for a second or two. Some know their names and respond by looking up, while others simply enjoy the cracker. Most ewes come forward eagerly, while others hang back, too shy or too young to push in between the older girls. They will all get at least one piece, though – even if I have to sneak a piece to a shy girl or toss it to her at the back of the crowd. In any case, I can easily scan every girl in the field from wherever I go, making sure they are all well – that no one of them is sick or injured or worse.
I am sure I could perform the same task in a number of different ways, but there is something very satisfying about the “cracker runs.” I call my sheep and they come eagerly. For a moment, each girl is called individually by name, and she responds. In return, she gets a moment of sweetness that she cannot get in any other way. It is satisfaction times two: for an instant we are locked together in this mutually gratifying moment.