Filling in the background

Sometimes I have an idea for an interesting blog, but I know that the story requires some background for context — that without the background, the story loses its punch. By sharing factual information, what I was thinking at the time of the event, and why various decisions were made, the reader can better comprehend the situation — and how very amazing the outcome may be.

The problem becomes how to fill in the background without making the blog excessively long. I was faced with just such a situation for what will be next Monday’s blog. As a result, I am going to give the background here, explaining some of the basic considerations that will influence the story. I think this will make you better able to understand next week’s account of the life and death struggle.

I’ve written before that bottle rams are dangerous creatures. To most people, this seems counter-intuitive. It seems that if you befriend a ram when he is young — loving him and feeding him by hand — you would end up with a great friend, a companion who would never want to injure or kill you. But you would pretty much be wrong. Now, for every situation, there is always the exception, but the rule of thumb is that bottle rams become dangerous adult rams — and there is good reason for this if you think of it from the ram’s point of view.

A small ram knows nothing of people. They are part of flock life and know humans only as those creatures who come out during cold months to bring food. Most of the lambs are a bit standoffish. Their defense mechanism is to move/run away when we approach. This is as it should be. A ram who grows up in this environment comes to know that people are likely not a danger, but they still don’t really “get” us — they don’t quite know what we are capable of, and our movements tell them that we are predators rather than prey. This perception is, overall, a very good thing for us. Unless backed into a corner, a ram typically won’t charge a person unless their genetics are “mean.” (And, fortunately, a sweet temperament is easily selected for.)

Yet a bottle ram grows up differently. He comes to know people as the source of his food and warmth. Instead of instinctively moving away, he willingly comes near and lets us cuddle him to give the bottle. There is no more mystery or unknown about us, as far as he is concerned. We become part of the flock — and the ram, in turn, becomes one of us. Rams interact by head-bashing all the time (hence the name, ram), in celebration, in anger, in rivalry. It is their way of interacting with each other; and since we are now one of them, once the bottle ram grows up (between the ages of two and three), he will interact this way with us. He is not, in his mind, being mean. He doesn’t realize that we don’t head-bash back, that we don’t protect ourselves in this way. The situation has changed from a ram lamb that originally respected your space to an adult ram claiming your space as theirs. In that way, a bottle ram can become deadly.

As a result, we avoid bottle rams as much as possible. Essentially, bottle-feeding a ram (especially after about one week of age) immediately destines him for the meat market — a sad ending for what could have been a beautiful creature with a long breeding career. We instead provide milk in a bucket to reduce the human interaction, and sometimes the outcome is better.

A second piece of information that factors into Monday’s blog revolves around ewes caring for lambs that are not their own. There are very specific circumstances during which a ewe might steal another ewe’s lamb. Shortly after a ewe has delivered a new lamb, another ewe in active labor may smell the amniotic fluid on the newborn and decide that it must be her own baby. She’ll want to lick off that fluid and thereby bond to the lamb. Although we always have four to twelve ewes in the drop pen, ready to deliver their lambs within hours or days of each other, we only have issues with stealing about once every year or two.

Other than this occasional stealing, sheep are not generally willing to care for another ewe’s lamb(s). Most ewes have only enough milk to successfully raise two lambs. We select for the ability to produce enough milk to raise triplets, but not all ewes in our flock have this ability. Because ewes are generally very protective of their milk, getting one to foster or adopt a lamb from another ewe is actually a tricky business — and there is only a very small window of opportunity when conditions are right. In most cases, a ewe will butt away lambs who aren’t hers, keeping her own babies as her first priority. She knows that she produces a limited amount of milk, and that this milk is life for her own offspring. Without it, her lambs and the genetics that they will carry into future generations would perish.

Putting more lambs on a ewe who is already feeding her own carries the risk of her not producing enough milk for all the mouths. Milk is warmth, and a lamb who doesn’t get enough milk often risks hypothermia. In cold temperatures at this time of year, the smallest lamb (who generally gets the least time at the teat, being pushed away by the siblings) can freeze while in the barn — falling asleep and never awakening. A heartbreaking reality.

Monday’s blog is the story of a life-and-death struggle that involves all of this knowledge. It gives an account of a short window of time during which lives hung in the balance. I had the background and understanding of how sheep behave, and I had to make a choice — a decision that could mean life or death for more than one in our flock. Now that you have the same information that I did at the time, when you read the story on Monday, you can decide how you would have handled it. See you then!

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