Coming to my call

Our sheep are generally out in the pasture 24/7 this time of year. It used to be that if we needed to move them from one field to another or get them into a barn for some reason, I had to take out one of our herding dogs to do so. The sheep understood that when the dog showed up, they were moving. They would look to the dog to see which direction they needed to go and how quickly — and then they would go, no questions asked. This is the great benefit of a well-trained herding dog, and I will readily admit that there are still times when there is no other way to do what needs to be done. My dogs are truly a godsend!

Yet over the years, I have found another way to move my sheep. It all started innocently enough. I needed to move the sheep to new pasture, so i brought the dog into the field to gather them to me. As the dog did so, I stood at the gate in the direction of the new field and called to my sheep. Somehow I ended up using the same call nearly every time, shouting, “Here girls! Come on girls, let’s go!” over and over again. I would often shake a bucket to get their attention. The idea was to get them moving, and I really didn’t care what it took to do so — I tried it all at once!

Over the years, this has developed into a routine that the flock now understands. They know that when I call, “Here girls! Come on girls, let’s go!” they are going to something good. That something isn’t always the same. Sometimes it’s a fresh pasture, or graham crackers for the first dozen sheep, or alfalfa hay in the feeders. It’s always food, and it’s always good, so they come running.

As each new crop of lambs arrives, the mothers respond to my voice, teaching their babies that when they hear my call, they are to follow the shepherd. I no longer have to train the lambs; their mothers do it for me. By this time of the year, most of the lambs come to my call too. This system is now well entrenched in our management, and really simplifies moving the sheep.

Last night, a dozen or so ewes were up at the old storage barn being fed low-nutrition hay so that they would dry up after the weaning of their lambs some time ago. This group was a combination of ewes whose lambs had been weaned over a week ago and other girls who had been pulled out only a few days before. I wanted to divide the group, pulling out the ewes who were fairly well dried up so that they could go join the ewes already grazing in the pasture. The question was, how to pull them out? I could have put the dog in there; but in such close quarters, some of the ewes could panic, and I didn’t want that. Instead, I began to call them, and they all came to the gate where I stood.

My calling created quite a frenzy, since this group was not getting particularly high-quality feed and my call means food to them. As the group milled around at the gate, I simply opened the gate when the right girl passed by, allowing her to dash through. Of course, I had to close it quickly behind to keep the other ewes in, but I’ve had experience at this. After only a few minutes of calling, I had all five ewes ready to move out on our lawn, happily grazing for the first time in a week or more.

Moving them to the new pasture was just as easy. I simply called them and they came, knowing they were moving towards food. They followed me down the driveway, through the pasture gate, across the Pond Pasture and the bridge over the draw, and up the hill to the gate to the South Pasture where the rest of the ewes grazed. All I had to do was open the gate and they walked in to join their flock. It was simple — but only because my sheep all respond to my call.

Now, what makes this more interesting is that I call the ewes differently than I do the rams, changing “girls” to “boys” when I am trying to get the rams moving. This has evolved over years, but now each group knows when I am calling them and not the others. They may sometimes answer me by voice even when I call the other group, but the wrong group seldom begins moving. They somehow know I’m not calling them, and they stay put.

Because this simple call-and-follow routine has made things so much easier, I’ve begun recommending it to those who purchase starter flocks from us. Particularly if they don’t have much help or a well-trained herding dog, developing this simple habit can be life-changing for the flock. Besides that, there is nothing so impressive to family and friends as to stand out in a field and begin to call the flock that grazes in the timber 1/4 mile away, and then to have the sheep all turn and begin to run towards you at full speed. The rumble of hundreds of hooves on the turf, and the enthusiasm of the sheep as they jump and gambol on their way towards you is something that really makes an impression. But I always make sure to follow up with treats for at least some of those arriving at my side. It’s the only way I can be sure it will work just as well next time.

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