At this time of year, our pastures are beginning to fill in, but they’re not yet at a good level of production. This means we need to be careful not to overgraze, because an overgrazed pasture does not regrow as quickly as one grazed to only 2 to 3″. I must also still allow the lambs access to the barn for shelter, both because of the unpredictable spring weather and so the youngest lambs (still less than three weeks old) can get away from the neighborhood predators. As a result, I must carefully consider which fields to open to the flock and how long to allow grazing before moving them. Rotating our pastures is always something I consider carefully, but at this time of year, it is more complicated than usual.
To this point, our ewes and their lambs have been only in the Pond Pasture — with the exception of Peter, who became lost last week in the adjoining South Pasture. The grass in the Pond Pasture is quite heavily overgrazed at this point, so on Monday morning I decided to open up the adjoining South Pasture, allowing the flock access to new spring growth. They now walk through the Pond Pasture to get to and from the barn, but the open gate to the South Pasture allows the flock a higher level of nutrition than either the hay in the barn or the overeaten plants in the Pond Pasture. Ideally, I would have simply moved them into the South Pasture and closed the gate, but the youngest lambs are not yet ready to leave the barn all night long. That is still a couple of weeks away, since it is such a major step for the littlest ones.
Yet the opening of this new field brought a clear complication. The lambs had never been there before and were not sure how to gain access. As soon as I opened the gate from the Pond Pasture, the ewes all ran through; only a few of the lambs followed. The rest were too busy playing at the far end of the pond, became separated from their mothers, and eventually began calling for them. Their mothers, happy to be eating fresh grass, simply answered from their side of the fence in the South Pasture — and then continued eating. The lambs became more and more frantic as they ran back and forth along the fence and found no gate to get to their mothers. They began to cry in earnest — and of course I couldn’t bear to hear all of that crying!
I began to walk quickly behind the lost lambs, nabbing one here and grabbing one there. When I captured a lamb, I hefted it over the electric fence that separated the pastures and dropped the terrified lamb onto the other side where its mother ate and called. One by one, my group of young anxious lambs were dropped on the other side of the fence and happily rejoined the flock. Finally, after two hours of lamb-chasing, the fields were quiet, filled with only the sound of the gusty spring winds.
Several times that day, I heard mothers and their lambs calling for each other as the shared fenceline separated new families. Yet after those first few hours, they seemed to get the idea that they had to go towards the gate. The ewes became less focused on the new grass, since they had filled their bellies over the preceding hours, and became more focused on feeding their lambs — wherever they might be. Slowly, the mothers began to teach their lambs that the red gate was the only way to get back and forth from one pasture to the other, and quiet again settled over our fields.
Yet although the lesson of the gate is being taught, I am still vigilant. It doesn’t take long for a small lamb to weaken and then die when left for too long, and this is so easily prevented if I know there is a problem. Thankfully, the South Pasture and the currently troublesome fenceline are both easily seen from our kitchen windows. As I go about my work indoors, I can keep an eye on the flock to make sure that all the lambs are being well taken care of by their distracted hungry mothers.