An unexpected slip

Keeping sheep is not generally considered to be a very dangerous activity. Of course, as with anything else, I’m aware of the possible dangers and keep my wits about me as I do my daily chores. Rams are in their breeding groups now, and so they’re particularly protective of their girls. When I enter any field containing a ram, I keep him in my sights so I know where he is and what he’s doing at all times. Our rams are known for their friendly disposition, but it takes only one accident to create a very dangerous situation. I pay attention, keep my cellphone in my pocket, and then hope for the best.

Because our ewes went into this year’s breeding season thinner than usual, we’ve been feeding grain to each of our groups. I’ve set grain feeding troughs in each field, but as of the end of last week, I found that the group in the South Pasture needed more trough space. Rick was out of town last week until Friday, and he went to work on building more troughs as soon as he got home — but that still left me feeding grain to that group on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday without additional troughs.

The problem with feeding grain from too few troughs is that there isn’t enough space for every sheep in that field to have good access to the grain. In such a situation, desperation sets in because only the biggest, meanest girls find a place at the trough. The smaller, sweeter girls are left to run around, looking for space to push in and eat.

Desperation triggers more aggressive behavior. By Friday evening, when I went out to the South Pasture to feed grain to Sterling’s group, I could see desperation in the faces of my ewes. Sterling stood back from the crowd, as he usually does. I am still a bit unfamiliar to him, so he is happy to observe and only comes forward for grain when I leave. But as my 4-wheeler came to the gate nearest the feeder on Friday, the sixteen ewes crowded around, figuring that if they could get some feed from my bucket, they’d have less fighting at the feeder.

Unfortunately, that sudden surge knocked me off of my feet and into the feeder. I knew that the pain of the fall was nothing in comparison to what I would feel if I could not get up. Although the sheep were all pushing in, trying to get at the bucket, I held it tight to my body with my left arm while I tried to figure a way to get my feet onto the ground. The more I struggled, the harder the ewes fought to get to the bucket. I grabbed with my right hand at any ewe I could reach, trying to pull myself up as they all pushed me down. I flailed with one arm, trying unsuccessfully to grab a coat or a head or something to give me enough leverage to pull myself up — and that flailing led to the next problem.

From Sterling’s vantage point, the human suddenly disappeared and then his girls surged forward to push into the feeder — the usual indication that the feed had been poured. But this time the ewes didn’t spread out to eat; instead they all crowded around one point at the feeder. Besides that, something was flailing and grabbing at them from the center of the group. His protective nature came to the fore, and Sterling decided that his girls needed his strength — and he came charging in to help. Sterling’s assistance came in the form of a strong ramming from behind, straight into my right shoulder. After the first hit, I knew that he would return — that he was likely backing up to come at me again. It would require as little as one good hit at the back of my head or neck to cause permanent injury, and I was seriously afraid for my life.

With no access to grain, many of my ewes backed away to allow their ram to do his work. Still a bit dazed from the fall and panicked by the hit from Sterling — yet knowing that he would come at me again — I quickly grabbed at the only ewe still within reach of my right arm: January, my good friend. I desperately reached out and pushed my arm over her big head, grabbing her coat on the other side of her neck. I pulled with all of my might, which with January’s bulky 180 pounds planted on four strong legs, gave me enough leverage to pull myself to my feet. I dragged my backside out of the feeder just as Sterling charged, missing only because of my last-minute movements. As he stopped and looked the situation over, you could suddenly see the look of surprise cross his face, “Oh, it was you in that feeder? I didn’t realize. Sorry!” He made his way back to his usual spot to await the pouring of grain into the trough.

It took me a while to gather myself. I was left bruised and bleeding, but with no permanent damage. I finished feeding the sheep and hopped on my 4-wheeler to return to the house. I spent much of the weekend recovering. The crush of ewes has now stopped due to two new feeders in that field; they know there is space enough for everyone. As for me, I’m moving a bit more slowly for now — it will take a while to fully recover. Rick noticed that in some places, my bruises seem to have bruises!

Sometimes it takes only one unexpected slip to change everything. And that’s why you always need to keep your wits about you when around sheep. You never know when everything will come together just right — or really, just wrong — to create an unexpected situation. A situation where you must think and react in an instant. Once again, I was very lucky.

Lisa update: Lisa is doing much better and will be the topic of Wednesday’s blog. Stay tuned!

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  • Jane M says:

    I have no words for the way this year has unfolded for you.

    • Dee says:

      These types of things come and go, and I will admit that this most recent fall into the feeder was a good reminder to me not to become too complacent when it comes to routine chores. It’s something we all know as shepherds, but my accidents among the flock are generally few and far between. It is sometimes easy to forget that sheep are not pets – particularly because I have so many sheep-friends within the flock!

  • Janice says:

    Good to know you are ok even with bruises! January needs another graham cracker for being in the right place!

  • Del says:

    Good job on getting to your feet! Too many of these stories end very badly. I have seriously thought of getting fence line feeders for breeding season for this very reason. My rams are pushing each other as they have to wait until November to meet up with the girls. Any that show aggression my way are put on the short list.

  • Elaine Chicago says:

    What an ordeal!! I’m so happy you are o.k. even though being bruised probably all over. Bless January for being there to help steady you.

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