Sheep temperament is hereditary. That is not to say you will always get a sweet offspring from two sweet and gentle parents, but the parentage certainly doesn’t hurt! And like most traits that have a hereditary component, the more strongly you select for a trait among your flock members, the more likely you are to get what you’re selecting for — in this case, sweet lambs that grow up to be well-behaved and respectful adult sheep.
Yet like people, sheep come in many “flavors.” Some are friendly and gregarious while others are stand-offish and shy; some are curious and into everything while others mellow and stoic. We track many qualities in our lambs, and probably one of the most important is how they interact with the world. I know from experience that certain lamb behaviors tend to lead to specific undesirable behaviors in adults. All lambs are cute, so I know I must harden my heart a bit if I expect to have a well-behaved flock. In the end, I cannot keep a lamb simply because it’s “cute” — it must also be, physically and mentally, a good fit for our flock.
Once our lambs arrive, I pay particular attention to the rams, because honestly, the wrong ram can be dangerous. They generally grow to be quite a bit bigger than the ewes, and a threatening ram is an entirely different situation than a somewhat wild ewe. It is actually kind of cute to see a very young ram back up and lower his head when someone reaches out to touch him. “What a tough little guy,” people often say. Yet that behavior will lead to issues in an adult. When a 300-pound ram lowers his head, paws the ground, and readies himself to run at you, it’s no longer cute — it’s dangerous!
That potential for aggression motivates my initial decisions regarding which ram lambs to keep. I look for boys who don’t immediately lower their heads and step back as I approach. A ram lamb who is curious and brave enough to face what comes without fear and aggression is one I want to watch, since if he meets my other criteria, he is quite likely to find a place in our breeding flock.
I also watch how they interact with each other and the world as they mature. We generally don’t interact with our young rams more than we have to, because familiarity with humans tends to make them less respectful and more aggressively playful. I am not a ram plaything, and for safety’s sake, I don’t ever want them to get that impression. I gravitate towards rams who are just a bit shy, like Pine or Martin (now sold and breeding at another farm). They see me as part of their environment, but because they also view me as a somewhat unknown entity, they prefer to give me a bit of space. When I enter their area, they watch my movements from a slight distance, feeling more comfortable if they have a way of escape if required. Honestly, I feel the same way! I, too, like to have that bit of space for reaction time. These shyer rams give the space we need to feel comfortable.
In the Romeldales, I find that the brown or moorit sheep (like Parker or Sterling) tend to be a bit more ‘extroverted’ than the black-based portion of the flock. It’s hard to find the correct word to describe this behavior. I debated about aggressive (too strong), feral (too wild), and curious (too weak), and finally decided on extroverted. These sheep are curious (looking for treats in my pockets, for example), intelligent (watching me to learn how to open our gate latches and carabiners), and playful (stealing my tools and taking off with my gloves, hoping for a game of tag!). They can be a pain, but they’re also very entertaining. Yet this streak must be carefully monitored in ram lambs since it can lead to a problematic adult who plays too roughly without meaning to do harm. Their lack of intent is meaningless if I end up in the hospital!
Each of our rams is an individual who interacts in his own way with me and with the world around him. Each has been determined to be “safe” based on his behavior and history since birth — but it is an ongoing assessment. If something changes and I begin to feel afraid, the future of that particular ram makes a major shift towards leaving our flock. There are enough well-behaved rams in our flock, just waiting to do their work. And since my flock depends on me staying safe and healthy, only well-behaved rams will be allowed to stay.