Hannah surprises us both

On October 14th I wrote about a couple of our Romney ewes, including Hannah, who was born to Zoe in 2008. I mentioned that I was surprised at how stand-offish Hannah still was around me after so many years. I’ve been working with her for a long time to come to me for graham crackers — a particular treat for our flock during breeding season and any other time I need to see the girls up close. Pretty much every adult ewe will come and eat from my hands — except Hannah. After all these years, she remained too shy and afraid to come close. I’ve continued to work with her on this, but I had pretty much given up hope. After seven years of her refusal to come near, I had pretty much decided that she was a lost cause.

I was out among the Romney flock yesterday, looking for purple crayon markings that would indicate new breedings by Martin. As is the norm, I had my hands and pockets full of graham cracker pieces, and I was calling to the ewes to come and get a bit of cracker. Some ewes had received their pieces and were already on their way back to grazing. Others were on their way to me, and a group crowded around my legs, nibbling at my fingers as I repeatedly handed out pieces. Huddled at the fringe of this group was Hannah, ever vigilant for dropped crackers but still not willing to move in close enough to snag a piece.

As usual, I dropped one in front of her occasionally, hoping she would be able to get it before nearby ewes moved in — but her luck was not so good this day. Again and again she would lower her head to quickly pick up the dropped cracker, only to find another ewe already grabbing the sweet bit. I continued to fling pieces in her direction, but the crowd around me was thick. Since I was already having enough trouble trying to prevent the milling ewes from jumping up on me like big dogs, I just couldn’t spend much time worrying about Hannah. I kept feeding out the crackers as I looked for new markings — it was what I had to do.

And then it happened. Hannah had lowered her head in hope of picking up a piece of cracker flung her way, but she had again been too late. As she raised her head after yet another disappointment, I happened to be reaching out to give McKenna a long, skinny piece of graham cracker, which passed very near Hannah’s nose. Instead of Hannah jumping away from my hand, her lips quickly grabbed at the cracker. Time stood still for an instant as we each realized what had just happened. Recognition bloomed on Hannah’s face as she turned to look at me and her eyes opened wider. I stood stock-still, waiting to see what she would do. Would she run?

But Hannah stood there among the ewes who were still looking for graham crackers. She was surrounded by friends, so she didn’t panic much. She was definitely a bit nervous but not so much so that she was willing to walk away and miss the crackers. I decided to try again. I fed out crackers to the pushiest girls to get them busy and then held out a long, thin cracker in Hannah’s direction, hoping the others would give her a chance. This time, it was obvious that she knew exactly what she was doing. You could see the decision pass over her face before she slowly moved towards the bit of cracker that I held. Her lips closed over the treat and I quickly released it, letting her savor the crunchy sweetness that now filled her mouth — and again, she did not turn and leave. Hannah stood there, chewing and enjoying the reward for her bravery. Wow!

I don’t know that Hannah’s basic way of approaching the world has made a dramatic change; she is still likely to be wary of new situations and nervous of human interaction. Yet I feel like she made a major step forward yesterday. Hannah realized that, at least when I’m carrying graham crackers, I’m not a threat. She learned that standing among the ewes and nibbling at bits of graham crackers is not nearly the dangerous activity that she once considered it to be. I have suddenly become at least a bit trustworthy in her eyes.

And I have realized that no matter how shy or nervous a sheep may seem, there is always a hope of winning them over. All you need is a pocket full of treats, a group of happy sheep who trust your presence, and a lot of patience — in some cases, years of it! I’m so happy that Hannah is finally coming around!

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