Building trust

Obella was added to our flock last August from a flock dissolution in Montana. That particular flock had purchased our bloodlines years ago, and when they decided to sell off their sheep, I bought back daughters and granddaughters of the girls we had sold them. I knew they came from good lines, and I was happy to incorporate them into our flock and to sell some of them to nearby flocks. As a result, Obella and her friend Nia both joined our ewes.

These two girls have settled in fairly well, but not as well as I would like. I know it takes time for new sheep to develop trust. They have been ripped away from the only home they have ever known and put into an environment they didn’t ask for. They trusted once, and this is what it got them — as a result, they’re careful not to trust again too quickly.

Yet I know that trust builds with time. It cannot be hurried, and I am a patient soul, especially after years of shepherding. Sheep will teach us many lessons if we let them, and patience is one of the biggest. I know from experience that the biggest trust-builder between a ewe and her shepherdess comes during lambing, so I’ve let them be suspicious and stand-offish. I knew things would get better as we got to know each other better.

Obella had been in the drop pen for a while with several other ewes. She was due last Friday, and I’d been carefully monitoring her condition as her due date approached. When I fed the sheep Thursday afternoon, I knew she was close. Her bag was tight and full, her back end was a bit swollen and pink — and it jiggled as she walked, telling me that the hormone that relaxes the pelvis before birth was flowing. It wouldn’t be long. All through the afternoon, I checked the monitor in the house every couple of hours, but nothing seemed to be happening in the drop pen.

When I checked the monitor right after dinner, I noticed two lambs running around the drop pen — and Obella panicking as she tried to round them up. Yes, they were up and running! Rick and I dropped everything and headed for the barn, knowing that there were three other ewes in the drop pen who would be only too happy to steal these babies and make them their own — with all kinds of problems to follow!

Upon arrival at the lambing barn, I was aware that Obella still did not trust me. These next few minutes would form the foundation of any long-term relationship we might forge. If I rushed it, I could cause irreparable damage. If I took my time, thinking carefully before every move, I might win her over. I asked Rick to wait at the door of the barn until I had established a safe zone for Obella and slowly made my way into the drop pen.

Obella was obviously frustrated. I could tell that she had labored hard to deliver her twin ewe lambs — the larger white lamb (Queisha) was a dark burnt-orange color, indicating severe stress during the birth. The smaller colored lamb was tiny, a high risk lamb because of her size. Obella was tired and ready to settle down to mother her lambs, but there were two of them — and both very mobile. The best she had managed was to get one settled into place to nurse, only to have the other run off, trying to find her. I saw this repeat over and over again, and she was frazzled.

I moved very slowly, talking to her softly as I did so. I caught the crying lamb that was running loose, and I held it out before me — an offering she couldn’t refuse. As I set down the one lamb and she began to lick and mother it, the other took off again, confused, crying, and searching for its mother. I caught this lamb and brought it to her, offering it at arm’s length. As she recognized my help in keeping the lambs together, I could see her trust beginning to build. No longer did she panic whenever I moved towards one of her lambs.

At that point I decided to move to the next step, carefully lifting both lambs, holding them at arm’s length in front of me, and calling softly to Obella to follow. Her lambing jug (pen) had already been set up with water and fresh alfalfa hay, and the suspended heat lamp would help dry her lambs. I led with her twin ewe lambs and she followed — but only to the edge of the drop pen. When I entered the walkway to the jugs, she refused to follow. And when she saw that her lambs were continuing down the walkway to the jug, she panicked and — a very typical response — ran back to the place where she gave birth.

DOB 3/9/2017: Colored Romney Obella with twins Quella (E, 7.3 lbs) and Queisha (E, 11.4 lbs). Note the dark orange color of Queisha, a sign of stress during the birth

I came closer again, continuing to patiently call her and hold her lambs out, and eventually she came — the instinct to bond with her lambs stronger than her fear of me or the unfamiliar concrete walkway. When we reached the jug, I placed her lambs in the middle under the heat lamp and stood to the side for her to enter. This was a test. If she trusted me enough, she would pass by to get to her lambs — and she did. The old suspicious Obella would not have come so close to me for anything, but things had changed in the past few moments. I was no longer an unknown predator. I had held her lambs and had not harmed them. I had quelled her panic and brought her lambs to this smaller space where she could manage things. I could be trusted. Our friendship has taken root, and now it is up to me to help it flourish. Welcome Queisha and Quella!


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  • Elaine Chicago says:

    I’m so happy that Mum and Babies are o.k. Now after all this mistrust and trauma will Obella be your friend and how long will it take before she comes to you?

    • Dee says:

      Obella is settling into motherhood (this is her first time), and although I don’t think she will ever be as close to me as January, Pierson, or Kali (who often come to me when I call them), she has definitely warmed up to me. She will now allow me to touch her without running away, and lets me into her jug/pen without panic. Things will likely only get better from here!

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