Looking across a flock of sheep, the average person sees, well, a bunch of sheep, most of whom look basically the same. Yes, there are different colors or patterns, but their similarities seem to outweigh their differences, and it can be hard to distinguish one from the others. As far as the sheep are concerned, there is refuge and safety in the flock: by being one of many, indistinguishable from the rest, a small fraction of the whole, it is more difficult for a predator to single them out.
Yet as their shepherd, I see a group of individuals. There are the flashy sheep like Heavenly and Gabby, who win multiple awards for fleece, or Lisbeth and Livia, who carry very unusual patterns for their breed. There are also particularly friendly sheep like Kali or January, who brighten my days when they come over for a pet or a scratch in the middle of a busy day. On the other extreme, there are girls who tend to cause problems or have britchy fleece that needs particularly heavy skirting each year. We tend to move them out when we cull, but they end up being replaced by other problem girls—there’s always somebody at the bottom.
Yet those extremes are few, and the main part of the flock is a large silent majority, mostly unnoticed. They are good, productive workers, giving us lovely but not particularly spectacular fleeces and usually two healthy lambs each spring. They eat the average amount of feed and require no special attention. They are just there, doing their jobs as the workhorses of the flock. Zoe’s first daughter, Grace (a Romney), is just one of those sheep.
We used to show Grace’s fleece in the old days, but she seldom took first place, always second, third, or fourth. She had a nice fleece but not flashy, so after a few years we stopped showing her wool. She always gives us a couple of nice lambs every spring—fourteen of them in seven years—and she was again scanned with twins this year. She is nothing if not dependable. But I have to be honest and admit that I don’t often see her. I know she is there, but she’s not sick or in trouble and she doesn’t need assistance in delivering her lambs. In the end, it is her invisibility that is the most remarkable: she has lived in our flock and flown under the radar for her eight years of life. Until this year.
When we sheared our ewes in January, the shearer remarked that Grace was particularly thin in comparison to our other ewes. She was in the nutrition group for ewes carrying twins, so there was no reason for lower weight. I made a notation in our records and decided to begin supplementing Grace’s diet with some grain. I was already feeding out eleven buckets to our high-nutrition girls (who were now mixed in with the rest of the bred ewes) so I figured what’s one more bucket? Shortly after shearing, I loaded up a bucket with about 1/4 pound of our new grain blend and took it with me as I fed. I figured things would go just like with the other girls: a few days of training Grace to come when her name was called and teaching her that if someone else was eating out of a bucket, she had no chance of getting in.
Simple—but I figured wrong. Grace wanted nothing to do with my bucket or grain. Every time I put it over the end of her nose, Grace pulled her head from the bucket and ran for the other side of the barn. I soon felt as if I had run a marathon, simply from chasing Grace, and I realized that you can lead a sheep to feed, but you cannot make her eat! Her weight was not yet critical, because Grace is not due until March 25th, our last ewe due to deliver. Yet her eyes were lackluster, and I knew I had to build her up. I had to regroup and rethink. I skipped her bucket for a day or two to figure out another way—and stumbled across the answer as I cleaned the barn for lambing.
When you or I feel bad, what makes us feel better? Perhaps the smell of chicken soup, just like Mom used to make. Or the macaroni and cheese that we got only when a sore throat needed some soft food. Coincidentally, I ran across half a bucket of our old creep feed. It is probably a year or two old, because we have since switched to a better mix—more natural and more easily digested. Yet I knew that smells could take us back—and sometimes when we don’t feel particularly well, it’s that step back that does the most good. This creep feed is the one we used when Grace was a lamb. Maybe—just maybe—it would mentally take her back and I could get her to eat something.
The next day, I put 1/4 pound of the old creep feed into Grace’s bucket. She saw me coming and ran the other way. I chased her around—she most likely burned more calories than she would get from the grain in the bucket—but I knew we needed a start, and this was my only shot at getting her to eat. I kept after her until she was eventually cornered and I was able to get my bucket in front of her. She pulled her head back, ready to run again—and suddenly a flash of recognition swept over her face. She lowered her head to sniff at the contents of the bucket and then began to lick up the crumbs, licking more and more quickly as the grain disappeared. Wow!
It has been at least a couple of weeks since Grace began to eat from her bucket. When my stash of old creep feed runs out, I will likely have to buy another bag, just for Grace. I don’t know why she was thin or what set her back—but I do know that she definitely knows her name now and obviously feels better. I only have to walk into the pen with her red bucket and call out, “Grace! Gracie, I have your bucket!” At the sound of my call, she pulls her head from one of the hay feeders, eyes sparkling with the thought of what that bucket holds. She quickly makes her way to my side, knowing that the bucket and its contents are hers—that if any other sheep comes forward to steal it from her, I will keep them away. Grace, a workhorse of our flock, is making her way back.