Although I feed the sheep only once each day, I’ve learned the importance of checking on them whenever I’m outside in their area. It isn’t that I go up to spend time among them (although I’m well-known for doing that too!), but whenever I am out and about on the farm, I’m always aware of my surroundings and what the sheep are up to. I make sure to look them over from wherever I might be, and I listen for any of their vocalizations.
When new shepherds get their first flock of sheep from us, I always talk to them about trying to incorporate this awareness into their daily routine. I encourage them to take a close look and listen to their new sheep as we deliver them — reminding them that this is what healthy, happy sheep look and sound like. If there is a change, investigation is in order; and if they can’t figure out what changed, I’m only a phone call away!
Yesterday I was in the midst of my morning routine. I had finished with my indoor tasks and was on my way to complete the outdoor chores, which included checking for eggs and feeding the chickens, running the dogs, and putting away anything that might have been used after the last chores the day before. As I left the garage (behind my crazed-full-of-energy dogs), I heard an unusual sound. I paused in the doorway to identify it — a sheep, and it was not happy.
I tried to locate the source of the sound, since I currently have four groups of sheep, each in a different area. As I stood and listened, the cry came again. It was a ewe from the sound of it, and she sounded young. Based on the direction of the call, she was definitely in the low-nutrition group, but as I looked up at that group in the lower paddock, they seemed to be simply lying around and cudding. Because there appeared to be no panic or concern for this as-yet-unidentified gal in trouble, I knew it couldn’t be too bad. I have a couple of ewes in this group who would most certainly “tell” me if there was indeed a crisis unfolding, and these ewes didn’t seem to be bothered one bit by the panicked cries.
Knowing that the calling ewe was not likely in a life-or-death situation, I began a slow run towards the sound of her calls, which sent my dogs into a flurry of excitement; it isn’t often that they see me running towards the sheep! My running meant that it was important and that I might need help — and that meant work for them! They all lay down at the fence, knowing that the best-behaved dog would get a chance to work if I needed them.
The calling ewe and I had developed a Marco-Polo type situation: she would call and I would answer, then she would call and I would answer again. Her cries had softened as I ran and called; because I was answering her cries, she knew that I was coming, and I think that settled her down a bit. She was no longer so panicky; now she was just calling because she was unhappy.
The closer I got to the Storage Barn, where the low-nutrition group is currently housed, the easier it was to identify exactly where I was headed. We currently have four of the hay feeders for this group in the lean-to on the side of the barn, but since we needed a fifth feeder, we had opened up one of the horse stalls and put the feeder inside. I ducked under the closed upper half of the dutch door and into the darkened stall. Although I couldn’t see her, my ears confirmed that the ewe was there, still calling to me.
As my eyes adjusted, I began to make out the situation: white Romeldale Sweet Pea, January’s daughter, stood alone in the stall near one wall. Her voice was hoarse from calling, most likely for hours. With such dim light, I could only guess that the leg strap of her coat must have been caught by a screw eye in the wall. We have these screw eyes all over our barns since we use them to anchor panels and pens to the walls of the buildings. I find that the norm in this situation is that the screw eye has slightly opened over time and allowed the leg strap to catch in what has become more a hook than a loop.
Some additional light allowed me to assess Sweet Pea’s problem. In her case, the loop was still mostly closed, but somehow the strap had worked its way through the tiny gap. It took about twenty minutes to work the narrowest part of the strap through the gap in the metal loop. After the release of her leg strap, Sweet Pea bounded off to rejoin her flock. But first she stopped in the doorway and looked back at me, as I sat in the straw near the screw eye. I know I shouldn’t project my human thoughts into my sheep’s heads, but I swear that if she could have talked, she would have said, “Gosh, thanks for that! I guess maybe you really are as nice and helpful as they say!”