Fern’s dilemma

I was looking out of the window the other day at the ewe flock in the Fire Circle Pasture when I noticed that there were a number of ewes gathered together, obviously trying to destroy something. They stood in a circle, stomping and head-butting whatever was in the middle of the group. From my vantage point, I couldn’t quite tell what was there. A raccoon? A fox? No, it seemed bigger.

As I stood watching the event unfold, more ewes gathered to take part in whatever was happening. And then I suddenly realized what I was seeing. A ewe had lost her coat — instead of the bulk of the fabric covering her body, it had somehow flipped up and now hung over her head, essentially blinding her to the surrounding world . The other ewes of the flock, realizing that she could no longer see, had decided she was a threat to the entire flock — if she couldn’t see a coyote coming, she was easy prey. They decided that the most merciful act was to kill her, and that was what they were attempting to do!

I quickly hopped in my truck and drove out to the pasture, knowing that speed was of the essence. I had grabbed two different sizes of coats to replace the one she wore; I didn’t know whether it had slipped because it no longer fit or because it had torn. In either case, she would need a new one, so I headed out to rectify the problem. I hoped I would not be too late — my last glance toward the pasture had shown her down on the ground with the other ewes pummeling her with heads and hooves.

Fern is the oldest member of our flock and a good friend

Fern is the oldest member of our flock and a good friend

When I arrived at the scene, all of the ewes stopped their activity and raised their heads to see what I would do. The focus of their activity had been my old friend, Fern — the oldest and largest member of our ewe flock. Poor Fern now stood in the middle of the group, waiting for the barrage to begin again — and not understanding why it had stopped. She stood with her head down — not a normal position, but not surprising since she had all but given up hope that she would see again.

Even though I approached Fern slowly, she heard my steps and stiffened, expecting more abuse. When I saw this, I began to speak softly to her; I wanted her to know that I was coming to help her out. I’d need her cooperation if I was to remove the coat and then put on the new one. I had brought Coda, one of my border collies, as back-up in case I didn’t get cooperation; but I’d left him waiting back in the truck. I was hoping that Fern would work with me and that the dog would be unnecessary, but wouldn’t know until I had my hands on her.

As I got to her, Fern stood in place, a bit confused, I think, about what I could actually do. As soon as I pulled the old coat over her head and she could once again see, she could have easily left. Fern is big enough that if she puts her mind to moving forward, there is no way I can stop her. Yet she has slimmed down a lot this year after nursing her daughter, Oyster, and her adopted son, Oleander. In fact, she could no longer be called by her previous nickname, “Fat Fern.” She had dropped two full coat sizes in the past few months, and she had likely stepped out of the leg straps because the coat was too big. It had then worked its way over her head.

I needn’t have worried about Fern’s cooperation. She stood in place as I removed the old coat, pulled the new one over her head, and slipped each back leg into its straps. In a few minutes, Fern was back to normal and once more moving among the flock of ewes .

I must admit that I was surprised by two different aspects of this experience: first, I was surprised at the viciousness of the attack against Fern when she couldn’t see, and then I was equally surprised at how quickly the ewes again accepted her as part of the flock once the coat was back in place. They all acted as if nothing had happened — even Fern. There was no checking to see if this was indeed Fern, nor did Fern hold back to see whether the flock would accept her. No, it was as if everyone but me knew and accepted that they would kill whoever was disabled in any way, but if they recovered quickly, they were back to being part of the flock immediately. I left the field with a new understanding of the dynamics of the flock and with thanks that I had noticed the problem before I lost a good friend. It had been a close call.

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  • Bev says:

    I’m so glad you rescued Fern in time. Also, in a weird way I kind of envy the sheep who don’t have to agonize over the right (moral) thing to do.

    • Dee says:

      Yes, it seems that there was little question about the “right” thing to do in this situation. It amazed me how many ewes came to participate so quickly – and how the whole thing was dropped equally quickly once the coat issue was fixed.

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