I’m very cautious about changing the ewes’ coats at this time of year. The girls are heavy with lambs, and the ground is covered in snow and ice; one false move and they can twist a leg or, worse, fall the wrong way and possibly abort their pre-term lambs. Everything I do among the ewes tends to be calm and peaceful, with physical interaction only if it’s absolutely necessary. I noticed several weeks ago that Nelly’s coat had lost its elastic and was hanging off to one side. Since at that time shearing was only about six weeks away, I figured that the coat might stay on just enough to protect most of her lovely fleece. Since catching a sheep can be stressful to the entire group, no matter how calmly we do it, my hope was that we could wait until shearing when we automatically give each sheep a fresh, well-fitted coat.
This, however, was not to be. By last Friday, not only had Nelly’s coat shifted to expose the majority of her fleece to all of the many contaminants in her environment, but I also noticed that two other coats in the low-nutrition group were also needing a change. Myth had torn a hole in the side of her coat, and Netty had split the front and totally lost hers. It was clearly time to change those coats, in spite of my good intentions to leave well enough alone.
I took a few moments to consider the best way to catch each girl. If our sheep are already crowded into a small space (like immediately after feeding, when they crowd around the hay), the easiest and least stressful approach is usually to put the fresh coats inside my jacket and move myself into position by pretending that I am attending to their feed. Usually I can just slip a hand under the ewe’s chin and she is caught! This approach worked well for both Myth and Netty; it took me only minutes to catch and recoat them, and few of the other ewes even realized what had happened.
Nelly, in the high-nutrition group, was a bit more challenging. Not only was this a smaller group in a fairly large area, but Nelly is new to the flock and, therefore, more nervous all around. Her nervousness is often contagious, putting all the ewes of her group into an apprehensive state. I knew I wouldn’t be able to simply walk up and catch her, so I had to develop a different plan.
Because the weather had been cold, snowy, and icy, the exterior door of the Sheep Barn (where the high-nutrition group is housed) was frozen open, allowing those girls constant access to the Pond Pasture. This wasn’t a problem until I needed to contain the ewes inside. I decided that the calmest way to contain the group and catch Nelly was with the assistance of my most loyal and trusted border collie. Coda loves to work and seems to essentially read my mind. I decided to bring him in through the frozen exterior doorway to prevent the group from leaving and then push them into a tight group against the back wall of the barn, where I could lean over and catch Nelly. But we ended up with one unforeseen problem: Hope.
As soon as Coda and I came through the doorway of the barn, Nelly panicked, which spread through the whole group. Although she had originally come from our farm, Nelly has spent most of her life elsewhere and has not yet acclimated to our routines or our dogs; therefore, seeing Coda in the flock’s space scared her. Once the other ewes saw Coda, they all settled and moved toward the back of the barn where he and I wanted them. Unfortunately, Hope’s back was turned to us as we entered the space, and she reacted blindly to Nelly’s panic, turning and running at top speed for the doorway, vaulting over Coda, and charging away from the barn across the snow and ice.
Thankfully, Coda is very well trained and has a very focused temperament. Although Hope’s rapid movement in the direction opposite our goal caught his immediate attention, I was able to quickly refocus him on the task at hand. He moved the remaining flock to the rear of the barn, and I caught Nelly with little effort and changed her coat. I made sure that it fitted well across her rapidly expanding girth and slipped the leg straps in place. In only a few minutes we were done in the barn, and I went to find Hope.
The old girl had sought out their llama, Howie, knowing she would be safe with him. As I had feared, she had twisted her leg a bit in the panic of the escape and was now limping slightly. She was also still afraid, displaying big eyes and alert ears. It was obvious that she had no idea what had happened or why she had run — but she assumed it had been something terrible. I took a few minutes to calm her with my voice, settling her to the point that she was willing to begin the walk back to rejoin the flock.
Once she saw the rest of the girls, Hope settled in quickly. You could see her look at each of the other ewes, trying to assess what terrible thing had happened. After all, Nelly had let them all know that something terrible was coming, so what had it been? Finding nothing amiss, Hope returned to her normal mellow self — albeit now limping. I now hope that, given a few days, Hope will once again be running on all four legs and that her unborn lambs are none the worse for the scare.