Breeding rams and temperament

One would think that determining the temperament of a ram would be a relatively easy thing, but as regular readers know, most issues surrounding sheep end up being more complicated than they might seem! Ram temperament is one of those things. First, as with people, temperament can change with age and life experience. Unlike with people, I have seldom seen ram temperament get better with age; it seems as though a ram who is too feisty as a lamb will only get worse as an adult. There is an exception to this rule, however. If a ram lamb learned at a young age that intimidation works, that humans will leave him alone if he acts aggressively — for example, if the humans fearfully leave his area when he lowers his head — he can be taught that this behavior no longer works.

Several years ago, we had a couple of rams come in from Wisconsin who had learned, through their life experience, that if they lowered their heads and pawed at the ground (much like the bulls in cartoons, actually!), the shepherds would get scared and leave the rams alone. The rams learned this lesson well, and when they arrived here, they looked like mean and aggressive rams — at first. Within a very short time, however, I noticed that they never went beyond the threat. And when I called their bluff, they were obviously surprised! For a week we would only leave their paddock after they gave up and walked away. By the end of the week, they no longer lowered their heads or pawed the ground. They had learned that this behavior no longer worked to their advantage, that if they turned and walked away, we would soon leave. They had been retrained.

Rams generally develop their temperament over the first three years — whatever you see in years one and two can still develop into a “mean” or aggressive ram in year three. After the age of three or three and a half, rams pretty much stay as they are, so a mellow three-year-old ram will usually remain that way for the rest of his life — and the same with a dangerous three-year-old.

Yet a very mellow ram can still be a bit aggressive during breeding season, and the shepherd must decide how much aggression they are willing to deal with. Some people believe that any aggression from a ram is too much, no matter the time of year, while others are willing to breed a ram who is looking to kill them any time of the year! (As an aside, I had a ram pass through here once on his way to Wisconsin who wanted to kill every human he encountered. I had to feed him by throwing hay into his stall, where he responded by bashing his head against the door as I worked. His new owner told me that he was willing to put up with it because of the ram’s many good traits. I cannot imagine trying to work with this type of ram! He couldn’t possibly have enough positive traits to offset my possible death by his actions.)

I guess when it comes to rams and temperament, I fall somewhere in the middle: if the ram is mellow for most of the year but is very protective of his ewes while in a breeding group, I’m willing to overlook his protectiveness. We run more breeding groups than we have guardian llamas, so there are always two or three groups that have no llama for protection. In that situation, the ewes are dependent on the protective nature of their resident ram — and I need that ram to do what he can to dissuade a predator and keep his ewes alive. In other words, I need at least a few of my rams to aggressively protect their girls.

As I bring in new rams, I watch them closely. They must be even-tempered through the non-breeding season, or they won’t be allowed to breed in the fall. Temperament is hereditary, and I don’t want a whole flock of dangerous rams and ram lambs. On the other hand, as breeding season approaches, I begin to notice which of the new fellows seem to be more protective. The experienced rams have already been tried, so I know which of them will and won’t protect. When our groups are put together, the llamas go in with the mellower rams; the rams who have a more protective nature go out on their own. If, as breeding begins, I notice that one of my rams without a llama is not protective enough, I will often pull a llama from a more protective ram to cover that group.

ObiWan is now two and a half years old, and he’s suddenly becoming much more protective of his ewes — as is Pine. Both were very mellow fellows until they got into their breeding groups, and they were fairly easygoing as the ewes began to cycle through heat. Yet this has changed as the season has progressed. Neither of them want me out in the field with them. When I enter to feed out their grain, all is well — but when my feeding is done, they have no patience for my filling their water tanks. Both Obi and Pine will press their heads against my leg and push, trying to move me towards the gate. I’ve been trying to keep the water tank between us as I wait for the tank to fill, but Obi is getting frustrated by this keep-away game.

I’m willing to allow this behavior for the time being — after all, neither is trying to hurt me at this point. Yet I’m hoping that this is protective breeding behavior and not a reflection of a change in overall temperament. It had better stop at the end of breeding when things go back to “normal.” If not, one or both of these boys may be short-timers here on our farm. I have no patience for problem rams.

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  • Jane M says:

    A ram who does some ramming is a critical part of the storyline (in my imaginary book) so I’m always fascinated by what you have to say about the rams.

    • Dee says:

      Yeah, for obvious reasons I much prefer rams who don’t do that, but in some situations, it can be a positive trait. I guess kinda like a husband, father or brother in a way. We don’t want them picking fights unnecessarily, but when a bad guy comes along and lives are in danger, you do kinda hope he will have the spunk to save the day.

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