Head counts

One of the major responsibilities of any shepherd is the well-being of their flock. When a flock is small — say a half-dozen ewes — this is a relatively easy thing to accomplish. The shepherd calls the flock over with a tasty treat or finds a good vantage point from which to view the sheep and then does a head count. If all sheep are present and look good, the job is done.

But such a small flock is essentially a hobby flock. With sheep, there is some economy of size; it is easier to break even or actually make a bit of a profit when you have more sheep. Many things we purchase come in quantities geared towards a larger number of sheep. Vaccinations come with a minimum of 10 doses; the bottles of 25, 50, and 100 doses reduce the cost per unit as the bottle size increases. When the vet visits, the expense is quite high when divided over six sheep, compared to the same visit divided over a flock of forty or fifty. More sheep generally produce more income and a lower per-sheep expense.

Each flock will set its own economy of scale at a different point, based on their own resources and management. For most shepherds, the number of sheep needed to bring in a profit is typically larger than what a shepherd can easily count in a field — particularly when there are lambs present. Our farm has settled on keeping about 40 to 50 ewes, depending on the year and our breeding goals. The only way to accurately count them would be if I could get them to line up neatly and then hold still for me, and we all know this isn’t going to happen.

Making the transition from a small hobby flock to a bigger business flock is stressful. At some point you realize that you can no longer count each flock member to make sure they are all there, nor can you be sure that you’ve laid eyes on each and every one of them every time you visit the field. With large numbers of animals, the shepherd must depend on their own skill and their relationship with the flock to recognize and identify problems before they become catastrophic. That can be a very scary thing at first and, many times, even later.

The ewes in small groups eating their hay. This allows me to watch their movement for possible problems.

When I visit the ewe flock twice daily, they all come running towards me from their loafing spots in the shade. I need them to do this so that I can check the flock. With all of the ewes up and moving, I spread their hay into about thirty small mounds so that every ewe can find a safe place to eat while I watch. (We are currently feeding supplemental hay because of our lack of rain so far in September.) I move to a lower part of the field to check them over, looking for girls who move particularly slowly (perhaps pneumonia or anemia?), who are not dropping well-formed pellets (internal parasites?), or who separate themselves from the rest of the flock (fly strike or other serious illness?). As I fill their water tanks, I look for anything out of the ordinary. I also pay attention to the ewes who come to say hello, since three of those girls often let me know if there is trouble brewing in the flock. If any of these three comes to me and wants me to follow, I know there is something amiss. I have to count on my own observations and those of my close ovine friends to identify problems before they become a matter of life and death. But the system doesn’t always work perfectly.

My view of the field as I move towards the bottom SE corner. From there I can see if anyone has been left behind under the trees.

It’s hard to admit, but every large flock (with so many sheep that they’re hard to count) will sometimes have things go terribly wrong. A lamb might crawl under a bush and die, not to be found until weeks later. Or a rustler looking to add free sheep to their flock might come and steal one away while we’re not looking. Things happen; and although we usually know right away, sometimes we don’t — especially in larger flocks. When we realize we’ve lost one without noticing, one of two things tends to happen: we feel an incredible sense of guilt and loss that we have failed one of our flock, or we shrug it off and continue on our way. The very best shepherds — the people who I feel should continue to care for their flock of sheep — are in the first group. Every loss is a hit in the gut because they care so very much. It only hurts if you care — and I believe a shepherd should care.

These thoughts have been rolling around in my head today because I was talking to a friend this past weekend, and she was hurting for just this reason. This person has saved lambs that, honestly, I would have given up on. She has every trait of a good shepherd: intelligence, compassion, integrity, a tendency towards perfectionism, and a tenacity for life. This shepherd was feeling the ache of loss and the guilt of not having been able to stave off death. Yet I know that there are animals alive today that would not be if they had been in anyone else’s flock. We talked, and I let her know that she is not alone — we have all been there and we have all ached.

Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. Until you’ve been responsible for so many lives, you don’t realize how fine a line there can be between life and death, and how little it takes for one of the flock to slip from one side of that very fine line to the other. We each do the very best we can, and then we pray that it is enough — one day at a time.

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