Howie is our youngest llama, having come to us as a youngster in early June of 2012. When he arrived, we initially put him in with Martin, our most experienced llama in hopes that he would be trained in the ways of our farm – and he was. Howie is now both a vigilant guard and a great playmate for our lambs, combining both a gentle and sweet nature with a strong protective streak – the perfect combination of traits for a guard here at Peeper Hollow Farm.
He and Martin have become fast friends over the years, often working together to protect the ewes with young lambs at their sides. In the early spring, it is not unusual to see the two of them immersed in a rowdy game of king-of-the-mountain with the lambs on the ever-growing manure piles, or a constantly changing game of tag where the ‘chaser’ and the ‘chasees’ switch moment-by-moment (first the llamas chase the dozens of lambs, but they quickly change direction to let the youngest of the flock chase them, too – it never fails to brighten my day!). Martin has trained him well, and in the process, seems to have made a life-long friend.
Yet, not all is wonderful when it comes to this pair of guards. I think it is actually because of their gentle nature with the lambs that these two are gentle with all of the sheep – and at feeding time, this can create problems. Sheep can be quite aggressive at getting to their hay, often pushing and shoving to get to that very best position. I must watch our llamas closely to make sure that they, too, are getting enough to eat. Although llamas Summer and Orbit are in with the bigger and even more aggressive rams, neither of them has issues keeping weight on – they have strong enough personalities to push their way in and insist that they get their share. Martin and Howie have been a different story, however, often coming through the winter a bit on the thin side. In fact, there have been times when I’ve noticed that they were too thin, and I have put out feed specifically for these two llamas well above the heads of the ewes so that they could eat undisturbed. This llama feeding and monitoring has become an ongoing part of my work, making sure that Howie and Martin maintain their weight throughout the hay-feeding months to keep them healthy and happy.
I was up at the ewe shelter yesterday feeding the group as part of my daily chores – this is currently the largest group of ewes, and also the group where Howie is currently working. Because I want to limit weight gain in this group, I measure out the hay based on the headcount and the number of pounds each group member needs for their current stage of production (for most, second trimester gestation with twins). When I entered the area, the sheep quickly crowded forward, knowing that fresh hay was coming – and Howie once again got caught up in this flow, finding a spot at a bale feeder and waiting for me to fill it. In the past, I’ve noticed that when I filled the feeder, Howie has typically gotten crowded out by the crush of ewes – and then he would wait patiently until the pushing and shoving lessened before once again attempting to get his share of hay. This works, but there is often not much left by the time the ewes leave the bales to cud on the hillside – the ewes are ravenous and happy to eat more than their share, leaving him little.
As I filled the third of five feeders yesterday, I heard an unusual sound coming from one of the already placed hay bales, and I went to investigate. I turned the corner in time to see Howie issuing a deep-throated growl to the ewes at either side, then using his head as a medieval flail to knock them back as he took his place at the feeder. Surprisingly, the ewes respected his space, allowing the llama an equal share of the hay and an appropriate space at the bale. Howie has obviously learned to assert his place and his right to a full meal of hay – and I applaud him for it!
Now, I dare not get too excited yet – it is very possible that Howie was simply particularly hungry and in a bad mood yesterday, and willing to battle for his place at the bale. On the other hand, the fact that Howie was successful in his aggression and was rewarded with fresh hay may be enough to encourage him to stand his ground more often. In either case, I will continue to watch his weight and his behavior in the coming weeks to ensure that he continues to get the feed that he both needs and deserves.