Over the years, we have sold a lot of breeding animals to other shepherds across the US, both near and far. Many of these people have been new to shepherding, knowing little about the new world they had entered with their ovine purchase. I well remember that feeling when we purchased our first sheep – that combination of excitement and fear. I knew nothing about what we had gotten ourselves into – the world of sheep might as well have been the surface of Mars; both Rick and I were city kids, never having even considered keeping livestock before we suddenly were keeping livestock. We had a very steep learning curve, and no one to turn to. We were on our own, and it was a terrible place to be.
It is for this reason that I decided those many years ago that I would do my very best to prevent others from feeling that same way. We offer mentoring with every sale we make, trying to understand each shepherd’s goals and then trying to help them get there. In fact, there are also a few shepherds out there that just stumbled across us because they needed help, and I’ve never turned anyone away. Eventually once I feel that they have acquired enough experience, I do encourage each of these new shepherds to try to manage on their own, but I also confirm for them that we are always here if they really need us. Help is but a text, an email, or a phone call away.
This all sounds really nice in theory, but in practice, we do the best we can. Some times of the year – like lambing time or when sheep sales begin to peak – are particularly difficult as I get calls and emails from shepherds near and far asking for advice or help. I have to set boundaries, and my own flock must come first. After that, I prioritize by urgency: a life-or-death situation always takes priority over an I-was-just-curious question. Any request coming in ends up categorized: health issues take priority over color genetics questions, and sales questions take priority over curiosity or non-critical questions. As the seasons change, my to-do list ebbs and flows, and eventually, I catch up and have no one waiting for me to get back to them.
I will admit that this does add a load to my workday – but in the end, it comes back to the sheep. Shepherding isn’t the type of thing that most of us go to college to understand. It is usually a business on the side or, for some, a hobby. In any case, there are very few people who come into this work well-educated as to all that is or can be involved – and bad information is hard to separate from the good when you read it all in a book or on-line. I know how much it helps to have people to ask and experienced shepherds to talk to. As a result, I seldom turn anyone away if they really need help – their sheep depend on them, and in turn, whoever they have turned to for help.
In the end, I am a shepherdess. As such, I understand the needs and behaviors of sheep, and have accumulated an incredible amount of information on the topic over the past seventeen years. Over that time, I’ve had many successes and failures, and have tried to learn from each, perfecting my ability to care for our flock. With every loss, I come away knowing more. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that I can save another sheep with similar issues the next time, but I will do better and get closer to success than I did the previous time. I know you can’t save them all, but I know that I can certainly try – and that is why I feel a responsibility to new shepherds. The only thing they have to fall back on is luck in those first couple of years – and that is a scary thing. I’ve been there. When experienced shepherds help these new flocks, these new shepherds then have our own vast experiences to fall back on, moving them forward more quickly with a higher level of confidence.
Any new undertaking can be scary, and facing the unknown alone just makes it worse. When our sheep go out into the world to other flocks, I want to know I have done all I can for them both here, and also there at their new homes. Helping their new shepherd figure things out is simply an extension of that. I can’t do it all – but I do try to do what I can. After all, I am a shepherdess, and caring for sheep is what I do.