Like most people who get their first sheep, I originally knew nothing — literally nothing — about sheep. I had never seen an actual sheep, fed a sheep, or even felt the wool of a sheep until it had been so processed that it seemingly had nothing to do with the sheep it came from. After all, the wool was blue, and who had ever seen a blue sheep?! This particular wool came in skeins that I knitted into a sweater for our son, and I never thought about the sheep that produced it.
As a former college grad, I knew I could find information in books, so during that first year I bought probably every book on sheep that had been published in the previous 40 years — fiction and nonfiction. I devoured books on veterinary medicine and on the various techniques of shearing. Unfortunately it seemed as if all these books held a lot of detailed information on very specific aspects of raising sheep but very little information on the basics of what they eat and their general care.
I thought that the source flocks for my first three sheep would also be a good source of information, but I was wrong. Instead of lending a helpful hand when I called with questions, I was viewed as a competitor in an industry with very narrow profit margins. Why on earth would they help me out?
Over the past 16 years I have accumulated a wealth of information regarding all things sheep. I will admit that the vast knowledge that I now have was gained on the backs of my flock. We learn from our mistakes, and I have made more than a few in my stumbling, bumbling attempt to become the best shepherdess I can be.
In those early years, I feel like I made every possible mistake and my flock paid, sometimes dearly, for my ignorance. As I fumbled in the darkness of my ineptitude, I swore that if and when I ever figured how to do this and sold any sheep to other shepherds (this seemed an impossible dream), I would share what bits of knowledge I had to offer. As I saw it, better that we fumble in the dark together than alone, and perhaps we’d cut our individual mistakes in half. In that way, both flocks would be the better for it.
It took five years before I had the knowledge and confidence to sell a single animal as breeding stock. By that point our farm had come to be known for its high-quality wool in the Romney market. People began to ask if we sold breeding stock, and for years I said no. I wanted to ensure that my first breeding stock sale would be stellar. So it wasn’t until 2005 that I finally sold a single ram lamb for breeding.
Edison was sold to a family in which the father and daughter worked their sheep in a joint venture. They had recently bought their flock and were looking to improve the quality of their fleeces via my ram — which they accomplished. The relationship and friendship that developed over the next ten years between their farm and ours was not only beneficial to each flock but became the groundwork for the mentoring that I now do with new shepherds. To my mind, it seems silly for each novice shepherd to have to “reinvent the wheel” with their new flock.
After these many years of mentoring new shepherds and reflecting back on my own foibles, I know where the pitfalls lie. I know the common mistakes, the unasked questions, and the things that are often misunderstood. This mentoring is not forced, but merely offered. Those who want the help are welcome to all they can tolerate. Those who don’t show interst are left to their privacy.
I have made many good friends through this mentoring. There is something incredibly bonding in a 3 a.m. call form a new shepherded afraid to pull lambs for the first time. For those in their first year of shepherding, I will answer calls 24/7 because I know the sense of panic that can be so easily alleviated by calm experience. Over the first year I usually send multiple texts and e-mails to remind shepherds of the pitfalls immediately before them. Although these contacts could be made through generic form letters, they are more useful if I tailor the topic to the flock. As these contacts trigger exchanges of calls or e-mails in response, a friendship can develop over our common focus.
This may sound as if the information flows in primarily one direction, but that assumption is false. It’s amazing how much I still learn each year about sheep. Yet because my knowledge base is so broad and deep, it is now more often from these other flocks that I expand my understanding. I find that the more I share with others, the more they share with me; and we are both the better for it. As a result, in this year alone I am investigating four different topics spread over a dozen flocks. And when we are finished, we will all move forward together with the results of that information.
In my experience, there is enough business for us all. There is no reason to climb over each other in a battle for market share. When you produce high-quality products, people understand the costs; and they will find you. It takes time to develop a market, and the early years can be rough. Yet I think it helps to know that all of us started there at one time, and often with less support.
Is it possible for a flock of sheep to pay for itself, plus more? Is it possible to help each other and move forward together? I would answer yes, without a doubt. All of this works hand in hand as we shepherds come together to move our breeds and flocks forward. And one result is that our sheep are healthier and happier because of it.