Happiness and pumpkins

We have a whole garage full of pumpkins, and our flock gets an allotment each day after their grain feeding. The rams get their pumpkins in the paddocks where they are going to overwinter, but the ewes get theirs out in the fields. The ewes get their morning grain in the East Pasture near the wooden Storage Barn, and then I hop into my truck and drive to the most distant pasture to put out fifteen or so big pumpkins — and the ewes know it! When they hear the truck in the garage start up, they are already finishing their grain and on the move, trying to get across the fields before anyone else. After all, the first arrivals will get their pick of pumpkins — and during this time of year, there is nothing better!

As I get out of my truck at the gate to the Fire Circle Pasture, I can hear them calling as they run towards me. Even after all of these years, the sound still makes me smile as I drop the tailgate. If I don’t hurry, the crowding of the ewes will make my work that much harder. With the sheep still running, I can drop the pumpkins just inside the gate or fence. They usually break as they hit the ground, or they roll for a bit further into the field. Once the sheep arrive, however, I’d have to throw the pumpkins over their heads to land on the grass beyond them. Since each pumpkin weighs from 20 to 50 pounds, throwing them that far is difficult to impossible. Every day I rush to beat the fast-arriving flock.

The sheep are running four or five abreast as they cross the fields, and they must narrow down to pass through each gate. Once they’ve passed through, the flock widens again on the other side. It is a perfectly choreographed movement that reminds me of flocks of birds in the air — each one knowing where to be and when, avoiding what would be a terrible accident as they rush towards their goal. The oldest ewes know exactly what’s happening, but not the ewe lambs. They simply run because everyone else is running, and running is fun! They often gambol on their way, kicking up their heels and twisting in the air before coming back to earth. The pumpkin run is fun for all, even if they don’t know why they’re running.

By the time the sheep begin to arrive, I have heaved the heaviest of the load over the pasture fence. Most of the pumpkins have broken from the impact, and the ewes swarm around them, each with a particular preference. Some ewes like only the seeds — they’re among the earliest in the field, knowing that the seeds will be gone first. They run from one broken pumpkin to the next, ignoring those that haven’t split open.

Other ewes prefer the outer portion of the pumpkins, including the rind, and if I pause in my work, I can hear their gum pads squeak against the rind. (Sheep have front teeth only on the bottom jaw; the upper jaw has a gum pad that allows them to efficiently pinch and tear off blades of grass, their most common food source.) Others want only the meaty portion below the rind, and so they hang back until the seed-eaters finish and begin to move away — their perfect pumpkin isn’t available until those nasty seeds are gone. The final group of ewes — like January — prefer the previously frozen pumpkins. When these hit the ground, they burst open into what looks like a pile of orange spaghetti mixed with seeds. The ewes who prefer their pumpkins this way do a bit more slurping than the rest. Watching January gorge on pumpkin reminds me of young children slurping long spaghetti noodles that slap against their faces on the way in. And again, that makes me smile.

The ewe lambs are beginning to understand these orange mounds that appear in the fields once daily. For the first week or so, they totally ignored them, not recognizing the broken pumpkins as food. After running with the ewes day after day, some of them began to look more closely and noticed that the ewes were eating the piles of orange. Eventually one or two took a bite — and others joined in the next day. As of today, about half of the ewe lambs are eating pumpkin, having discovered the joy of the seasonal treat. By next fall, they will no longer wonder — they will know — and they’ll join the rest of the flock in the mad scramble to find a good spot.

As the ewes eat, I continue to throw pumpkins from the bed of the truck into the fields every time I see a clear area. Eventually, all of the daily allotment has been tossed into the field and I stand there, watching and listening to my friends. There is something incredibly fulfilling in watching my flock this way. They are fed and happy — and that makes me happy. I watch them turn their orangey faces towards me, and I listen to the squeaking of gums against rind. After the last bits of pumpkin are claimed, some of the ewes come to say hello — or maybe it’s a thank you! After a quick scratch on the head or pat on the nose, they are off to rejoin the flock, and I’m off to continue my day, knowing that tomorrow morning will be another pumpkin day. A happy pumpkin day both for the flock and for me!

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