With the exception of Martin’s recently enlarged Romney breeding group, the rest of our sheep are becoming obviously bored with breeding season. The ewes are ready to return to their matriarchal society, and the rams seem to be looking forward to returning to their ram-only groups in the upper paddocks. It’s obvious that breeding season is almost over.
I’m sure many readers wonder how I know this — how I could possibly see into the thoughts of my sheep and know that they want to return to their single-sex groups? It’s a combination of knowing how sheep naturally live in the wild coupled with observations of my own flock. In the wild — for example, with bighorn sheep — the male lambs leave their mother’s flock at sexual maturity, between about four and six months of age. They eventually join small wandering male flocks of usually less than a half-dozen rams. The ewe lambs, on the other hand, typically remain within their mother’s flock for their entire lives. These matriarchal flocks typically contain about a dozen related ewes, but a flock sometimes joins others during harsh winters, creating flocks of a hundred or more female sheep who struggle together for survival in tough conditions. In the wild, the bighorn sheep mate during November and December for spring lambs, and it is during this time that the ram groups join up with the smaller bands of ewes, driven to push their genetics forward into future generations.
During the pre-breeding season called rut, these wild rams fight each other to establish a hierarchy, with the strongest males (having the biggest horns) ending up laying claim to the ewes. The ewes begin to cycle through heat as the days get shorter and the colder weather sets in, spurring the rams to breed. After weeks of breeding, all of the ewes in the group end up pregnant and no longer send out pheromones to attract the rams. It is at this point, with no more ewes to breed, that the rams wander off on their own, leaving the ewes once again in their matriarchal society.
Our own rams at Peeper Hollow Farm are put into their breeding groups based on my plans rather than their own in-fighting — but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some skirmishes among our rams! As breeding season approaches, the rams begin to mix it up, often shoving, pushing and charging at each other to establish their dominance. During this time, I often separate our smaller and younger ram lambs from the adult boys as I try to protect our youngest male flock members from the bigger, more experienced rams in this in-fighting. Even once the breeding groups are put together, the rams often fight through the fences, knocking heads as they try to intimidate the neighboring ram — and theoretically steal his girls! It isn’t unusual to find the tops of their heads either bald or split and bleeding from this fighting.
As our ewes are bred, however, and the pheromones of their heat cycles dwindle in the breeze, the rams begin to settle down. Boredom begins to set in for the rams in groups where all the ewes are already bred, and they set their sights on neighboring fields where the resident ram might not be quite so bored. Right now, with essentially all of our Romeldale/CVM ewes bred, those rams are focused on Martin’s Romney group, calling to him through the fence and posturing for a fight. I can almost imagine the hurled insults they call out to him, hoping to take him on and then steal away his ewes. Obviously, this isn’t possible with all the electrified fence between his group and theirs, but sheep don’t think that way. Fencing doesn’t register as an obstacle. All they know is that there are ewes still cycling through heat in the next field — and they want them!
When not harassing Martin, the other rams wander the borders of their fields, looking for other guys to intimidate or other ewes to breed. The ewes, on the other hand, are gathering in corners that share fencelines with other ewe groups that contain their friends. Muldoon’s girls bed down in either the southwest corner of the Rock Pasture where Nahe’s girls lie just on the other side in the Timber, or they relax against the northeast corner of their field against the gate that separates them from Noa’s girls. They already seem to be one larger group separated by a fence rather than the two smaller groups they obviously were just a few weeks ago. The rams no longer bed down with them, nor do the ewes follow behind their ram any longer. For them, breeding is over. They all seem more than ready to “go home.”
As I mentioned in my last blog, it won’t be long now; breeding season ends here on Friday, November 6th. Until then, the Romeldale rams will likely continue to pace the fencelines, looking bored and hoping to steal their neighbor’s ewes. The ewes will try to hang out together, even if there is an electrified fence separating them from their friends. And I will continue to wander the fields once each day, looking for the crayon markings of breedings that will mean late-born lambs for us in early April — as late as the 9th. Honestly, it feels as though Nov. 6th can’t come soon enough for any of us!